The Charterhouse tapestries are back

After nearly two years in lockdown at the conservator’s studio, the five remaining tapestry panels have now returned to the Charterhouse. They sit proudly in their new home, on the walls of the new ‘Tapestry Room’, previously known as the Brothers’ Common Room. In our third and final blog post on the tapestries, Dr Cathy Ross explains the significance of their design and iconography…

These tapestries are over 400 years old, and the only original furnishings to survive from the earliest days of Sutton’s Hospital. In 1615 the governors of Sutton Hospital bought a set of sumptuous tapestries from Edmund Traves, a London merchant. The cost was colossal for the time:  £1488 shillings for 8 pieces of ‘fine hangings’. The panels were hung in the Great Chamber, the room used by governors for their meetings. No expense was spared in furnishing the new hospital in a way that matched its aspiration to be Europe’s most magnificent charitable institution.

Over the centuries, two of the panels have been lost, but the five hung here are part of the original set of eight (a sixth surviving panel can be seen in the Great Chamber’s anteroom).

What do the tapestries show?

The panels illustrate stories from the Bible and seem to have been chosen to boost Sutton’s Hospital as a showpiece Protestant charity under the patronage of King James I. Exactly which Biblical stories are illustrated is still not entirely clear, but an account of the tapestries from the 1840s has some convincing suggestions.

The largest panel shows King Solomon receiving gifts from the Queen of Sheba and other monarchs. Solomon used his fabulous wealth to build a temple, a resonant story for a hospital whose founder, Thomas Sutton, was also a man of fabulous wealth. The two square panels show important Biblical figures:  David being armed by King Saul; and Deborah, the prophetess and judge, with her army commander Barak. Deborah was the only woman judge, or leader, honoured in the Old Testament’s Book of Judges.

Altogether, these tapestry panels would have conveyed the need to use wealth and power wisely, with fortitude and good moral judgement – a timely message for the governors of Sutton’s Hospital.

Where were the tapestries made? 

The tapestries were probably made in the Belgian town of Oudenaarde, a centre of tapestry making in the seventeenth century. All the panels are made from wool and silk thread, carefully worked by hand to create patterns and scenes of great subtlety. The colours have faded over the centuries but the overall effect remains impressive. The panels were cleaned and restored in 1838, 1908, 1956, the 1990s and 2020, prior to being relocated in this room.

1:  King Solomon meeting the Queen of Sheba

The largest panel shows the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.

The Queen of Sheba has rich significance in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. She was a legendary queen of Ethiopia or Egypt and appears in many ancient texts and images. In the Bible’s version of her story, the Queen heard rumours of the wealth of King Solomon, and made a state visit to see for herself, cementing their alliance through gifts of gold, jewels and spices, shown here in a treasure chest.

Other princely figures also bear gifts for Solomon. The description of the tapestry from the 1840s notes ‘two black men’ among these figures. Today, fading has made the colour black less noticeable. but the two figures are probably in the lower right corner, one carrying a model of a fortress.

In the centre, Solomon points to a crown, held out to him. In the seventeenth century this might have been read as a political message about the wisdom of uniting small kingdoms under one crown. As Solomon ruled over the united kingdoms of Samaria and Judah, so King James I had united the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

The background of the tapestry shows a triumphal procession entering a busy city, indicating the peace and prosperity Solomon brought to his nation.

2: David being armed by Saul

The central figure is the young shepherd boy David, before his fight with  the giant Goliath, champion of the Philistines. David has volunteered to be the champion of the Israelites and is being armed by King Saul, from whom he will eventually inherit the throne of Israel. As the Bible describes:  ‘And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put a helmet of brass upon his head’. 

The scene takes place beside King Saul’s tent on the field of battle. In the background, the Philistines fight the Israelites. In the far distance, a town burns, flames leaping high into the sky.

Detail: David being armed by Saul

3: Deborah and Barak

The seated woman is Deborah, a wise prophetess and the Old Testament’s only female judge. She and her army commander Barak are shown after their victory over the army of the Canaanites. Barak holds the severed head of Sisera, the defeated Canaanite general.

Sisera was killed when a woman, Jael, nailed a tent peg through his head while he slept. A second example of a tyrant meeting his death at the hands of a woman is shown in the background. The tower and ladder represent the attack of King Abimelech on the city of Thebaz. Abimelech was fatally wounded by a millstone thrown from the ramparts by a female citizen. Abimelech is said to have asked his soldiers to finish him off by the sword, rather than suffer the ignominy of being killed by a woman.

Seventeenth century viewers might have read this tapestry panel as illustrating the belief that brave deeds are doubly admirable when carried out by the weak – as women were assumed to be at the time.

The significance of the other foreground figures, including a bird catcher, is not known. The background scene shows raging battles, including camels, war trumpets and ships.

Detail: Deborah and Barak

4: Kings and Judges

The six figures here probably represent minor Judges, or leaders of the various tribes of Israel. The three lower figures have crowns and the upper figures wear classical dress to underline their authority.

This panel matches a smaller tapestry panel which currently hangs in the Great Chamber’s anteroom. This smaller panel has four figures arranged in similar fashion – judges above and kings below.

5: Vignettes and floral borders

This panel is the odd one out of the set. Much smaller than the other panels, it has a patchwork look and might have been made by stitching together fragments of decorative borders.

Detail: Vignettes and floral borders

In 1615 Charterhouse had eight pieces of ‘fine hangings’. Today, only 6 panels survive. Could this panel be made up of recycled fragments from the missing tapestries?

The Charterhouse would like to thank the National Lottery Heritage Fund and textile conservator Marilyn Leader for the conservation and relocation of the tapestries. Keep an eye out on our website for details of our upcoming brand new Historic Interiors guided tour when you can learn more about the tapestries, architecture and paintings in the collection.

For more detail about the conservation of these tapestries, read our two blog posts here.






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