The Garden of False Learning from The Table of Cebes

Designer: Design based on a woodcut by David Kandel (German, ca. 1520–ca. 1596)

Date: 1550–80

Culture: French

Medium: Wool and silk on canvas
Cross stitch, 48-56 per sq. in., 9 per sq. cm.
Tent stitch, 156-190 per sq. in., 30-36 per sq. cm.

Dimensions: H. 110 1/2 x W. 153 1/8 inches (280.7 x 388.9 cm)

Classification: Textiles-Embroidered

Credit Line: Gift of Constance McCann Betts, Mrs. Winston F.C. Guest, and Frasier W. McCann, 1942

Accession Number: 42.193.2


This embroidered wall hanging depicts an episode from the Table (or Tablet) of Cebes, a once renowned literary work of ancient Greece. The Table, a pagan Pilgrim's Progress, was enormously popular in Renaissance Europe and was printed in many editions. The story is as follows: Strangers visiting the temple of Saturn in Thebes are attracted by a tablet on the wall which bears a mysterious design. An old man, noticing their puzzled expressions, explains that the design symbolizes the course of human life, its trials and eventual rewards. His interpretation applies the Socratic doctrine that only the education of the mind and the consciousness of virtue can lead to happiness. Life, the old guide explains, is shown as a plot of ground contained within a wall and subdivided by two other concentric walls, each with a gate. At the gate of the outermost wall are the souls of infants about to enter life. As each passes through the portal into a large enclosure and becomes a young wayfarer, he meets various allegorical figures of dubious virtue, who point out the easy pleasures of existence. Drunk with the wine of Error and Ignorance, with which he has been plied, the average wayfarer devotes himself to riotous living and soon enough endures the usual aftermath of pain and misery. When all seems lost, Penitence rescues him, and at length he reaches a gate of the inner wall, beyond which are found those who, seeking Learning, are misled by False Learning. The arts and sciences and the more polite vices take up much time in this pleasant region. The wayfarer might discover, however, even from False Learning, information that could be useful on the last lap of the journey. Thus fortified, some wayfarers carry on and, after a painful pilgrimage, reach the innermost gate, guarded by the figure of True Learning, beyond which is happiness and journey's end.

Depicted in the Museum's embroidery is the second leg of the journey: the young wayfarer joins the sophisticated denizens of the Garden of False Learning. The Museum also owns the last in the sequence, Wayfarer Crowned by Happiness (69.298). Both embroideries appear to have been made by or for the Limousin family Fenis de Prade, a provenance indicated by coats of arms, and after 1547, the date of the woodcut by Strasbourg artist David Kandel that served as model for some of the figures.