Episodes from the Life of the Virgin Series
Two of the tapestries displayed at the Real Sitio de San Ildefonso are taken from a series known as Episodes from the Life of the Virgin, featuring scenes related to the Virgin Mary. Entitled “The prophecies are fulfilled at the birth of Christ” and “Presentation at the Temple”, both belonged to Queen Joanna I, “the Mad”, who acquired them in 1502. Woven in wool and silk with silver and gold thread, these valuable works are amongst the oldest of their type in the Spanish national collections.
In the summer of 1502, Princess Joanna of Castile, Archduchess of Austria and Duchess of Burgundy through marriage, travelled to Toledo with her husband Philip the Handsome. There, the Cortes of Castile summoned by the Catholic Monarchs recognised Joanna as heiress to the crown. On the 10th August, the princess paid the substantial sum of 2,506 pounds and 10 sueldosto Pieter van Aelst, Philip the Handsome´svalet de chambre and tapestry weaver, for “six gold and silk tapestries based on the Devotion of Our Lady”, which she had already commissioned. These six pieces today constitute two series. One of them, Triumphs of the Mother of God (also known as Golden Cloths due to the amount of gold they contain), is made up of four tapestries now displayed in the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The two others form the series known as Episodes from the Life of the Virgin.
Although the Virgin is the subject of all six tapestries, there are significant differences between the two series. The two which make up the so-called Episodes from the Life of the Virgin are larger and were weaved from cartoons attributed to Jan van Roome (or van Brussel), painter in the court of Margaret of Austria.
By 1506, Joanna I was in possession of all six tapestries. However, we do not know whether they were completed at the time of payment (1502). The pieces are described in the inventory of the Queen´s possessions drawn up in Tordesillas three years later. Emperor Charles V, conscious of the great value of his mother´s treasured tapestries, removed the best of them from the palace of Tordesillas in 1526. Amongst those taken were the two tapestries of Episodes from the Life of the Virgin. He gave them to his wife Isabella of Portugal, probably as a wedding gift. The Empress kept them until her death in 1539, at which point they were returned to the Emperor.
Upon the death of Charles V, the tapestries were passed on to his son, Philip II, who decided to put them in the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, then under construction. They decorated the “old church” until they were replaced by paintings. However, Philip II did not forget them and took possession of them again in 1593. They have survived to this day thanks to the maintenance of the tapestries by his successors.
C. Herrero Carretero, Tapices de Isabel la Católica, Madrid, 2004, pp. 92-93.
M. Á. Zalama, Juana I. Arte, poder y cultura en torno a una reina que no gobernó, Madrid, 2012, pp. 306-310.
Series Episodes from the Life of the Virgin
Models Attributed to Jan von Roome (or van Brussel)
Manufacture Pieter van Aelst, Brussels, c. 1502-1504
Fabric Gold, silver, silk and wool
Location Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso
Origin The Collection of Joanna I