By Catherine Woods, Hunt Museum, 3 minutes to read
Key words: Tapestries, fragment, medieval europe, Avignon, pope, papal city
Beaufort, Turenne and Comminges Tapestry Fragment, Hunt Museum, HCL 017 Copyright: Public Domain
On first viewing, you may not be particularly impressed by the Beaufort Tapestry fragment.
It is after all, somewhat faded and of course highly restored. But these factors should not deflect from its importance.
Why? Well, firstly it was created on or shortly after 1370, making it almost 650 years old. But, even more importantly, it is the only known pre-15th century armorial tapestry that still survives.
The Hunt Museum fragment is one of ten listed sections of this iconic creation.
A Tapestry, So what?
Tapestries were highly valued in medieval Europe. The great period of tapestry weaving ran from the second half of the 14th century right up to the end of the 18th century. Wall hangings were extremely popular and were used to decorate both public and private areas. Tapestries were versatile. They could be rolled up and moved quite easily from one residence to another. They added colour to rooms and kept out breezes. [Remember ancient castles were cold draughty places. Windows did not have glass panes and insulation was unknown.] Also, they were very costly to produce and so were luxury items. Owning tapestries symbolised wealth, success and social class. They were the Rolls Royce of the Middle Ages! [Henry VIII is reputed to have had 2000 of them hanging in his various palaces]
So, what about the Beaufort Tapestry?
Guillaume III Roger de Beaufort was appointed rector of the papal city of Avignon in 1370 when his brother became Pope Gregory XI in 1370.
The tapestry design uses repeating patterns, where a lion, stag, elephant or a unicorn carrying a heraldic shield are placed at the centre. This central animal is enclosed at the top by angel figures holding a crown and at the bottom by turreted walls, probably those of Avignon. There is further enclosure by rosettes and by swans, the symbol of Avignon’s first bishop, St Agricola.
Sur le Pont!
Mention of Avignon may recall the children’s song “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”Whatever the flippancy of a childish song, 14th century Avignon was a city of repute and renown. From 1309 until 1377 it replaced Rome as the home of the papacy. Seven successive popes resided there. This happened for a variety of reasons.
Fourteenth Century France was very powerful and following the eleventh century break between Eastern and Western Catholicism, was more central and secure than Rome. Avignon was chosen as the new papal city as it was owned by the papacy and also enjoyed the protection of the powerful French king. Of course, this move was not universally popular. It proved very controversial and almost caused another split in the church. Ironically, it was Pope Gregory XI, [pictured below], brother of Guillaume Roger III of Beaufort tapestry fame, who initiated the return of the papacy to Rome.
Portrait of pope Gregory XI, Avignon, France, by Henri Auguste Calixte César Serrur (1794-1865)
Guillaume III Roger de Beaufort and his father falcon hunting, the Stag Room of the Palace of the Popes of Avignon
By Jean-Marc Rosier from http://www.rosier.pro, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5036248
Where are the other Beaufort sections?
Besides the Hunt Museum fragments, nine others are known to be located at the following locations.
The Burrell Collection, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow. [3 sections]
The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano (may have been moved after sale of the Villa Favorita).
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/BK-NM-11702
Metropolitan Museum, New York. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/468153
Martin Collection, New York.
Museum of Fine Art, Boston. https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/tapestry-the-arms-of-roger-de-beaufort-turenne-and-comminges-a-fragment-probably-from-a-set-of-furnishings-for-a-room-67043
Rhode Island School of Design. https://risdmuseum.org/
Getting some further information related to the tapestry fragments and how they came to be so widely distributed would be a subject of considerable interest.
Tanner, Norman, New Short History of the Catholic Church, Burnes & Oates, London, 2011.
MacCullouch, Diarmaid, A History of Christianity, Penguin, London, 2011.
Doran, Patrick F, North Munster Antiquarium Journal, p13&14, Vol XX, 1978. Hunt Museum Essential Guide.