This is the first tapestry in a series manufactured by the court weaver in Brussels, Pieter van Aelst. It was commissioned for the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 and his coronation the following year. This panel illustrates to the young emperor the supreme importance of the Seven Virtues – with an emphasis on Faith – for good governance. It therefore forms part of the allegorical and moral programme linked to the sixteenth-century conceptions of royal ethics which is described in this series.
The palace or temple of Virtue
In a grandiose imagined palace or temple, we see the three Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity) and the four Cardinal Virtues (Justice, Prudence, Temperance and Fortitude). They appear with their respective attributes and are identified by name. In the centre, sitting on a throne, is Faith. She holds a church, the stone tablets of Mosaic Law and a lit candle. Beside her, on the left, Hope holds a boat and a blade, while to the right Charity appears with the sun and a heart. To the left of Hope, we see Temperance with a watch and spectacles, and, against the pillar, Prudence holds a mirror and dragon in her hands while treading on a skull. The figure of Justice sits to the right of Charity with her sword and scales, while the figure of Fortitude, leaning against the pillar, pulls a dragon from a tower with her bare hands. She has an anvil at her feet. Beneath the Theological Virtues, two other women are depicted who represent another two virtues: Observance, on the right, and Religion, on the left, each of them holding a book. These Virtues were considered by Cicero to be servants of Justice.
Crushing the Vices
Some of the Virtues are crushing their opposite Vices, which have been depicted in the form of historical characters. Thus, Faith crushes Mohammed (Heresy), Hope crushes Judas (Despair), Charity crushes Herod (Cruelty), Temperance crushes Sextus Tarquinius (Luxury, since he raped Lucretia), and Justice crushes Nero (Injustice).
Historical and religious characters
The palace or temple of Virtue is surrounded by a group of virtuous men and women from history and mythology. In the central part, we find a group of wise men behind some of the Virtues: the prophet Hermes Trismegistus and the Athenian poet and lawmaker Solon are behind Hope and Temperance while the prophet Joseph (the eleventh son of Jacob) and the Greek philosopher Socrates are behind Chariy and Justice. On the left—hand side, a grou p of men and women are guidd by Natural Virtue towards the Virtues, and amongst them we can see the politician and general Scipius Africanus, the emperor Charlemagne, and various Roman emperors including Hadrian, Trajan and Antoninus Pius. As for the women in the group, we see, amongst others, the biblical character Susanna and the Vestal Verginia. On the right-hand side, the group of men and women is guided by Acquired Virtue, and the people are moving in different directions. Some make their way towards Virtue, including an armoured Queen Tomyris, who killed the Persian King Cyrus the Great, and Emperor Tiberius kneeling before her. They are accompanied by the Cumaean Sybil, who was born with the gift of prophecy. Another group of characters makes its way up a staircase towards the next tapestry, ‘Honour’, in keeping with the iconography of the series. In this final group we can pick out, at the foot of the staircase, the legendary Athenian king Codrus and the Roman king Numa Pompilius. Climbing the stairs are Claudia, a Vestal Virgin, and the prophets Job and Jacob, who are accompanying the prophetess Cassandra.
According to Guy Delmarcel, this tapestry would have been the fourth in the series’ iconographic progression. Ordered in terms of iconography, the order would appear to be as follows: 1. Fortune; 2. Prudence; 3. Virtue; 4. Faith; 5. Honour (the central tapestry of the series); 6. Fame; 7. Justice; 8. Nobility; 9. Infamy.
Three banners with Latin inscriptions are set into the border, which is made up of flowers and fruits on a dark background with interspesed metallic forms. According to Guy Delmarcel, the texts of these banners, from left to right, read:
Eximie ductat sacram virtutis in arcem
Provida non raros vis genuina viros
[The noble force of foresight proudly leads
no small number of men to Virtue’s sacred fortress]
Quos Astrea suo dignata est munere Virtus
Excipit, & palmis ornat amica datis
[Heavenly Virtue sets aside those she deems worthy of her gifts,
and giving them palms honours them with friendship.]
Ad sublime vocat sacrati culmen honoris
Virtus Herculeo parta labore duces
[Virtue, born of Hercules’ Labours, calls the Leaders
to the exalted peak of hallowed Honour]
Series The Honours
First tapestry in the series
Model Cartoonists from the circle of Bernard van Orley and Jan Gossaert, called of Mabuse
Manufacture Pieter van Aelst, Brussels, c.1550
Fabric Gold, silver, silk and wool
Size 497 x 1050 cm
Location Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso
Origin Collection of Emperor Charles V
On display Hall of Honours, Tapestry Museum
National Heritage Inv. n. 10026284