Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Twelve Ages of Man: The Last Three Ages of Man (54-72), or Winter

Probably after a design by the Workshop of Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish, Brussels ca. 1492–1541/42 Brussels)
Author of inscriptions possibly Jerome van Busleyden (Hieronymus Buslidius) (ca. 1470–1517)
ca. 1515
Flemish, Brussels
Wool, silk (16-20 warps per inch, 6-8 per cm.)
H. 175 x W. 282 inches (444.5 x 716.3 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of The Hearst Foundation in memory of William Randolph Hearst, 1953
Accession Number:
Not on view
This tapestry illustrates the final three ages of man, equated with old age, infirmity and death, in a tripartite composition. The last eighteen years of life correspond to the months of October, November, and December, and to the season of winter, presided over by Aeolus, ruler of the winds. Boreas is more usual in this role, but he is shown as a wind in the December section. The two attendants may be personifications of Snow and Frost. The owl, a symbol of death and sleep, is appropriate for the season.

Each of the three vertical sections includes a roundel at the top surrounded by twenty-four hourglasses on a ground that is light above and dark below, in varied proportions, according to the seasons. Each roundel contains a sign of the zodiac, here Scorpio, Sagittarius and Capricorn, and a figure symbolizing a month. The roundels are seen against the sky, which is dark blue at the top, and are flanked by winds, usually with their names inscribed on their bellows or elsewhere. Below the two outer roundels is a representation of the occupation of a month; here, feeding pigs for October and threshing and winnowing for December (which is not a usual activity for this month and is probably included to allude to the accompanying inscription "The Goat shakes the grain from the fallen ears"). Below the occupations and the center roundels are episodes from classical history, mythology, the Old Testament or the Apocryphal Gospels, each illustrating one of the twelve ages of man. Under October, the piety of the Byzantine Emperor Tiberius II is rewarded when he causes a paving stone inappropriately bearing the cross to be lifted and discovers treasure, which he distributes amongst the poor. The Empress beside him bears the features of Margaret of Austria, whilst the man standing behind her is the same as Saint Gommaire in a stained-glass window now in the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels, but made for the chapel of the Fencers' Guild in Mechelen cathedral and probably a disguised portrait of a noble member of the guild and Margaret's court. Under November, Tobias respectfully listens to the parting advice from his blind and infirm father, Tobit. Under December, Jacob blesses his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim from his deathbed.

The two outer episodes have framed Latin distichs, supported by pedestals, between them and the occupation of the month above; the center episode has a similar inscription between it and the deity below. The verses refer to the story illustrated. In the upper border, on scrolls held by winged boys, are three Latin distichs connecting each month with an age in the life of man. In the lower border, flanking the inscription below the deity, are two medallions containing an animal, bird or object. The foregrounds of all the scenes are filled with flowering and fruiting plants.
Inscription: (border, upper left) Ut parat October creturis messibus arva, / Sic senior chara pro sobole invigilat.
[As October prepares the fields for future crops, so the older man is vigilant on behalf of his beloved offspring.]

(upper left) "Cecias" [ENE wind]; "Vulturnus" [SE wind]

(center, left) Pauperib'[us] dederas Tyberi pia munera Cesar / Sub saxo Tyberi reddita gaza fuit.
[Thou, Tiberius Caesar, hadst given charitable gifts to the poor: a treasure under a stone was given (thee) in return, Tiberius.]

(border, upper center) Inserit Arcitenens excultis semina terris. / Instituit proles (for prolem) qualibet arte senex.
[The Archer sows seed in the cultivated earth; the old man instructs his offspring in all arts.]

(center) Du iam deficeret Tobian lumeq, pedesq. / Natu Sophrosynen cu pietate docet.
[When his eyesight and his feet had failed Tobias (i.e. Tobit), he taught his son prudence and dutifulness.]

(border, lower center) Aeolus infestis qui concitat omnia ventis / Efficit, qui rig[e]at frigore tristis hyems
[Aeolus, who shakes everything with his hostile winds,, causes dismal winter to freeze with cold.]

(border, upper right) Excutit Egoceros spicis frumenta caducis. / Ut tande membris mors anima e gelidis.
[The Goat shakes the grain from the fallen ears. So does death at last drive life from cold limbs.]

(upper right) "boreas" [NE wind], "Orinthias" [for Ornithias, winter winds]

(center, right) Postq destituit Vitalis spiritus artus, / Emoriens Jacob celica regna subit.
[When the breath of life left his limbs, dying Jacob ascended to the heavenly kingdom.]
possibly commissioned by Margaret of Austria, Queen of Spain ; Raimundo Ruíz ; sold to French & Co. ; [ French and Co., New York (until 1930; sold to William Randolph Hearst) ] ; William Randolph Hearst (1930–51) ; [ Saks Fifth Avenue with Gimbel Bros./Hammer Galleries, 1941 ] ; William Randolph Hearst Foundation (until 1953; to MMA)
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