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Eternal Virtue: The Triumph of Charity in the Tapestry Gallery

Posted on 01/14/2016

The tapestries you see in the Tapestry Gallery are part of a set referred to as The Triumph of the Seven Virtues, created in Flanders (now part of Belgium) between 1525-1535. Woven from wool and silk, these works were intended to show how the seven virtues−faith, prudence, charity, chastity, temperance, fortitude and justice−would always prevail over vice. No one knows exactly who commissioned the tapestries or where they hung, but it’s speculated that they would have been displayed in a European palace.

Multiple tapestries were created, but very few of them survived through the centuries, and there are no examples of the Triumph of Temperance still in existence. Examples of the remaining tapestries are housed in just ten collections across the world, including the Cluny Museum in Paris, and the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, England and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. There are three in Biltmore’s collection, arranged from left to right in the Tapestry Galley: The Triumph of Prudence, The Triumph of Faith, and The Triumph of Charity.

The virtues are illustrated through biblical stories and symbols that would have been familiar to educated people in sixteenth-century Europe. But to twenty-first-century eyes, the meaning of the figures in the tapestry can be a bit mysterious. Here’s what we know about The Triumph of Charity, the last tapestry on the right. 

The Latin inscription on the top of the tapestry reads: He who loves the powers of heaven with all his heart performs all the duties which piety imposes.

The virtue of Charity is depicted as a woman holding a heart in her hand and reaching up and touching the radiant sun. 

In the upper left-hand corner of the tapestry, the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac is depicted, with the angel interceding and staying Abraham’s sword.

Below Abraham and Isaac, you can see Elizabeth of Hungary, a royal who became a nun and devoted her life to helping the poor.

To the right of the tapestry, you can see the figures of Tiberius−a Roman emperor−and his wife Placella. He was said to have been known for his generosity and she for her shrewdness. In this depiction, she said to be chiding him for exemplifying the spirit of charity a bit too well.

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