The History of David and Bathsheba Series

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The History of David and Bathsheba Series

Manuel I, King of Portugal, acquired four tapestries, which had approximately the same dimensions, of David and Bathsheba which were described in his 1505 inventory as “new and very rich,” and woven with “much gold” (muito ouro), silk and wool. Manuel I’s christological imaging as a prophet-king, the new “Emmanuel” of a Christian global empire at the beginning of the Portuguese discoveries, was most emphatically propagandized by the Portuguese king at the Jerónimos monastery complex he built outside of Lisbon in Belém, erected in commemoration of Vasco da Gama’s historic 1498 voyage to India. In the decorative, sculptural program of the cloister, Manuel I explicitly had himself portrayed as the Old Testament King David, surrounded by the Virtues, Prophets and Saints. The figure of David became a beloved paradigm and model for Renaissance princes.

One of panels of the tapestries cycle was only circumstancially described in the 1505 inventory as depicting a scene from the History of David and Bathsheba (“uma estorea de davy e brasabe”), while the remaining three were described in great detail: one panel showed Bathsheba at her bath, the second the Prophet Nathan, David and Bathsheba and the third David playing his harp in the company of three nobles, Israelites and Judas Maccabaeus (who according to the 1505 inventory was depicted wearing a white emblem and black serpent on his chest). This last tapestry has not survived.

Three of Manuel’s four panels have survived and correspond both in measurements and depicted themes to the set of History of David and Bathsheba, today in the Patrimonio Nacional. These panels are extraordinarily beautiful and remain one of the most significant exponents of religious tapestries woven in Brussels before 1515.

No further documentation confirms where Manuel I bought his four David and Bathsheba tapestries in 1505. He may have acquired them in Antwerp through his Portuguese factors based there who often acted as intermediaries in the acquisition of such tapestries and other luxury goods made in Flanders for the Portuguese court. If Manuel bought these from a merchant-dealer already woven, or had them commissioned for his collection remains to be determined.

After Manuel’s death in 1521, the History of David and Bathsheba became part of the tapestry wardrobe of the Lisbon royal palace, the Paço da Ribeira, which contained a number of outstanding Flemish tapestries and decorative cycles commissioned and acquired by the Portuguese monarchs, John III and his Habsburg spouse, Catherine of Austria, the youngest sister of Charles V.

In 1543 Catherine arranged for her daughter Maria of Portugal to marry her cousin, Prince Philip of Spain, the son of Charles V (later known as Philip II). For her daughter’s trousseau, the Portuguese queen selected a number of tapestries from the Portuguese royal collection. Thirty Flemish tapestry panels were given to Maria, some of which depicted the Story of Thebes, one panel (Invidia) from the Seven Deadly Sins, the mythologies of Diana, Jupiter, Calisto and Mercury based upon Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and three tapestries of Manuel I’s 1505 cycle of David and Bathsheba. Catherine’s choices had less to do with the decorative value or the high content of gold in these tapestries. Rather, she presented her daughter with weavings that instructed her in princely decorum, these tapestries intended as visual guidelines for virtuous, queenly conduct.

Maria’s sudden, premature death in 1545 after the birth of her son, Prince Carlos, cut short her future reign as queen of Spain. Her estate and wardrobe were removed to the castle of Simancas (near Valladolid). That same year an inventory of Maria’s belongings was drawn up: two tapestries and a tapestry called a baldaquin (or cielo) of silk and gold were carefully recorded. The set now called the cama de bersabé were stored in three rectangular leather chests. At this date, Philip kept all of his late wife’s jewels and Flemish tapestries.

However for reasons unknown, Maria of Portugal’s thirty tapestries remained stored at Simancas castle, never put to use or display by Philip II during his rule as Prince of Spain (he became King in 1556). Forgotten and fallen in disuse, they were inventoried at Simancas in 1561 now as part of the late Emperor Charles V’s estate; their Portuguese provenance and origin ignored by the court scribes.

An auction of select objects, textiles and tapestries once belonging to the former wardrobe and treasury of Charles V was held in Valladolid at the Colegio de San Gregorio in 1561, in order to pay the emperor’s outstanding debts. His son, Philip II, for reasons still unknown, had to buy this cama de bersabé, or tapestries of the History of David and Bathsheba which once belonged to the magnificent trousseau of his late wife, Maria of Portugal.

In 1568 the cama de bersabé was again recordedin the king’s papers, when Philip II decided to donate these tapestries to the Monastery of El Escorial, these weavings stored there in order for high-quality tapestries to be displayed when the king attended special religious ceremonies and fêtes. In 1598 when Philip II died, an inventory was made in Madrid of his immense tapestry collection (taken between 1607 and 1609). By this date, the David and Bathsheba tapestries, or the cama de bersabé, had returned - for unknown reasons - to the tapestry wardrobe of the Alcázar palace in Madrid, where in this same inventory all thirty tapestries once owned by Philip’s defunct wife, Maria of Portugal, were described as: “belonging to the princess now in heaven” (de la Serenissima Princessa que aya Gloria).


P. Junquera de Vega and C. Herrero Carretero, Catálogo de Tapices de Patrimonio Nacional. Volumen I: Siglo XVI, Madrid, 1986, pp. 9-16.

G. Delmarcel, David & Bethsabée. Un chef-d’oeuvre de la tapisserie a la Renaissance,Paris, 2008.

A. Jordan Gschwend, “Dotes regias. Las colecciones de tapices de María de Portugal y Juana de Austria (1543-1573),” Los Triunfos de Aracne. Tapices flamencos de los Austrias en el Renacimiento, edited by F. Checa Cremades and B. García García, Madrid, 2011, pp. 295-348.

A. Jordan, A rainha colecionadora. Catarina de Áustria, Lisbon, 2012, pp. 169-178.

Series The History of David and Bathsheba

Models Anoynmous

Manufacture Unknown, Brussels, 1505

Fabric Gold, silk and wool

Location Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

Origin Collection of Manuel I of Portugal. In 1543 three tapestries were included by Catherine of Austria in the dowry of her daughter Princess Maria when she married Prince Philip of Spain. After the king’s death in 1598, recorded in a post-mortem inventory of Philip II


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