King Arthur (from the Heroes Tapestries)

South Netherlandish

On view at The Met Cloisters in Gallery 18

The motif of Nine Heroes drawn from Classical, Jewish, and Christian traditions was first mentioned in a French poem in 1312, and soon became a popular theme throughout art and literature in late medieval Europe. Pulled from both history and legend, Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar represented the Heroes of the Classical era. Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus, from the Hebrew Bible and related accounts, constituted the Jewish Heroes. Finally, from medieval Europe, King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon formed the Christian Heroes. Celebrated as perfect embodiments of chivalry, the Nine Heroes provided exemplars of worthy warriors and just leaders for men of the noble and upper classes.

French poems of the late fourteenth century also began to praise Nine Heroines. As counterparts to the Heroes, the Heroines promoted ideals of chastity, humility, and loyalty. However, this list of Heroines was never settled and artists depicted various groups of women from the histories and legends of the ancient world. The celebrated German artist Hans Burgkmair established a set of three Classical, three Jewish, and three Christian women when he produced woodcuts of all eighteen Heroes and Heroines between 1516 and 1519. Perhaps intended for his imperial patron Maximilian I, Burgkmair’s series provided moral direction for men and women alike. Four of these six prints are in The Met’s collection (see 18.20.1–.3 and 30.53.10).

Dating to around 1400, The Cloisters’ Heroes are among the oldest surviving medieval tapestries in the world. Their state of preservation is remarkable, even though only five heroes are still extant. Each man sits enthroned underneath an architectural canopy, and each is depicted with emblems that early audiences would have recognized as clear markers of identity and authority. In its original form, the ensemble was almost certainly comprised of three large tapestries: one for the Classical Heroes, one for the Jewish Heroes, and one for the Christian Heroes. Made entirely of wool, these hangings were both decorative and practical, keeping stone interiors warm and festive during the colder months of the year.

Since the acquisition of the Heroes Tapestries, scholars have suggested that they may have been made for Jean, duke of Berry (1340-1416), son of John II, King of France. Of the fourteen heraldic banners in the upper part of the Hebrew tapestry, ten display Jean’s coat of arms. Of the remaining four, three show the royal arms of France and one the arms of Jean’s younger brother, Phillip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. Tantalizingly, inventories of the collections of the duke of Berry indicate that he did own tapestries featuring the Nine Heroes, but these hangings—unlike those in The Cloisters’ collection—were made with gold and silver threads. Though we might imagine that The Cloisters’ tapestries closely resembled the ones in the duke’s possession, there is no conclusive proof regarding their original ownership.

In this tapestry, King Arthur sits upon a dais. Bishops and cardinals surround him beneath smaller architectural canopies. Although pulled from popular legend, Arthur would have hung alongside the historical figures Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon to form the Christian Heroes tapestry. Though the other Christian Heroes have been lost, some fragments of their attendants are preserved in The Cloisters Collection (see 47.101.5a–c and 49.123). Thanks to a generous gift from Jane and Michael Horvitz, the King Arthur tapestry underwent an intensive treatment by The Met’s Textile Conservation Department from 2019–2022. Further conservation efforts for the remaining Heroes tapestries are currently in progress.

#61. King Arthur Attendants

King Arthur (from the Heroes Tapestries), Wool warp, wool wefts, South Netherlandish

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After conservation