Wall Hanging of David and Bathsheba
Completed in the workshops of Brussels in 1525, the wall hanging of David and Bathsheba is recognised today as a masterpiece of the art of 16th-century tapestry. Through the preciousness of the materials used, its quality of execution and its admirable state of conservation, it is equal to The Apocalypse Tapestry (14th century), The Lady and the Unicorn (15th century) or even The Hunts of Maximilian (16th century).
With the ten pieces bringing together nearly six hundred characters over seventy-five meters, this wall hanging illustrates the Biblical story of the Second Book of Samuel. In the middle of a war against the Ammonites, King David falls in love with Bathsheba as his wife Michal was sterile; from this adulterous relationship came a descendent. David then sends Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, to the front lines where he is killed. Divine wrath strikes the couple and the child dies. After a period of repentance, the forgiven ruler is victorious and marries Bathsheba. From his union with Bathsheba, legitimised by God, was born Salomon, the great king of Israel.
The story is transposed in the 16th-century environment, showing a multitude of details on courtly life in the Renaissance (costumes, royal pomp and ceremony, art of war). The name of the artist who created the scenes remains unknown. However, it could be the Flemish painter Jan van Roome, known as Jean de Bruxelles, an artist who was in style at the court of Margaret of Austria, sister of Charles Quint. In 1513 Jan van Roome designed the tomb of Margaret’s husband Philibert of Savoir in Brou; the tomb’s statuettes closely resemble the figures of the tapestry. Moreover, the name that comes up the most frequently when people try to identify who commanded this work of art that does not bear any coat of arms is Margaret of Austria. Two clues support this hypothesis: the heraldic motif of an “A” on the horse standard bearer of the third piece, which calls Austria to mind, and the palace architecture of the fourth piece, which resembles the court of the ducal palace of Brussels whose enclosure he had designed.
If Margaret of Austria ordered this work of art, it would seem that she resold it before her death, which occurred in 1530. In fact, the 1547 inventory of King Henry VIII of England notes the purchase in 1528 by a Flemish trader of a ten-piece wall hanging depicting “the rich history of King David”, with dimensions similar to those of the wall hanging of the National Renaissance Museum.
This wall hanging puts the pride and outrage of King David toward divine power as much as the forgiveness and consent of God. It is therefore easy to understand the value that Henry VIII could have placed on this story, in a context where he was trying to have the Pope accept his divorce from Catherine of Aragon – who gave him no children – and the effect that these tapestries could have had on the Italian princes and ambassadors when they were rolled out during ceremonies for the glorious sovereign.