Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Holy Family

ca. 1500
Flemish, Southern Netherlands
Wool, silk, and gilt- and silvered-metal-strip-wrapped silk in slit, dovetailed, and interlocking tapestry weave with supplementary brocading wefts (in sewing basket, Joseph's coat, and hem of Mary's cloak)
40 9/16 x 46 15/16 in. (103.1 x 119.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Robert Lehman Collection, 1975
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 959
This small tapestry depicting the Holy Family was probably made as an object of private devotion. Small hangings like this were designed in workshops that specialized in creating cartoons (large-scale drawings) based on contemporary paintings and prints. In this Holy Family the indoor/outdoor setting juxtaposes a divine interior with a worldly exterior. Mary and the Christ Child sit in a partially enclosed room while Joseph appears from a balustraded window with a distant view of a village in the distance. The attributes of the interior setting carry symbolic content. For example, the books on the shelf above the Virgin represent the Old and New Testament. The pomegranate to the left on the shelf symbolizes the Resurrection while the basket of sewing materials in the near ground alludes to the domestic aspects of life on earth.
This small tapestry depicting the Holy Family was probably made as an object of private devotion. It has been assumed that small hangings like this were designed in workshops that specialized in creating cartoons based on contemporary paintings and prints. At the turn of the sixteenth century the widespread influence of the by then more humanized cult of the Virgin was reflected in European art in all media. Bernaert van Orley (ca. 1488-1541) and Joos van Cleve (active ca. 1505-40/41), among others, depicted the Holy Family in traditional compositions that were variations on a theme popularized by the paintings of Quentin Massys (1466-1530), which show a simple interior with a view outside. Although the setting is out of doors and much more elaborate, the Virgin and Child in Van Orley's "Adoration of the Magi" in the Philadelphia Museum of Art could conceivably have served as models for the figures in the Lehman tapestry.

In the Lehman "Holy Family" the indoor/outdoor setting in effect juxtaposes a divine interior with a worldly exterior. Mary sits in a partially enclosed room holding the Christ Child on her lap, while Joseph stands looking in at them through a balustraded window at the left, a distant view of a village behind him. The bench Mary sits on is positioned at an angle, giving the interior scene a sense of depth. Her niche is clearly defined by a pair of columns topped with Corinthian capitals, and the composition is united by a textile hanging that provides a backdrop for the seated Virgin and then continued along the floor under the bench and the basket at the lower left. The pattern in the textile, which incorporates a pair of birds under a crown and white might be interpreted as a rampant lion under an aureole, is a composite of silk patterns that have been identified as being of Italian, possibly Lucchese, origin and dating from the end of the fourteenth century. Silks in similar patterns were frequently included in tapestries from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. On the shelf above the textile are a closed and an open book that symbolize the Old and New Testaments. The pomegranate at the left on the shelf is a reference to the Resurrection. The basket of sewing materials - a pair of scissors, fabrics, a ball of wood, and skeins of yarn undoubtedly symbolic of the thread of life 0 is an allusion to life on earth and all its practical, domestic aspects. The bunches of grapes in the wide border that frames the piece stand for the eucharistic wine and the blood of Christ. Based simply on the weaving quality, it is likely that "The Holy Family with Saint Anne" and another tapestry in the Metropolitan, "The Infant Christ Pressing the Wine of the Eucharist," were woven in the Southern Netherlands about 1500. The lack of documentary evidence or any identifying features, such as weaver and workshop markings, unfortunately precludes a more definite attribution for any of these tapestries, including the Lehman "Holy Family." (Source: C. Mayer Thurman, "European Textiles in the Robert Lehman Collection").
Gaston le Breton, Rouen; Le Breton sale, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 6-8 December 1921, lot 331, pl. 34; [Jacques Seligmann, Paris]; Mortimer L. Schiff, New York; Schiff sale, Christie's, London, 22 June 1938, lot 161, ill. Acquired by Philip Lehman through Goldschmidt Galleries at the Schiff sale in 1938
Christa C. Mayer-Thurman. "European Textiles." Robert Lehman Collection. XIV, New York, 2001.

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