Eternal Virtue: The Triumph of Faith in the Tapestry Gallery
All Things Biltmore • 01/18/16
Written By Joanne O'Sullivan
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, 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 Faith, the tapestry in the center.
The Latin inscription on the top of the tapestry reads: Holy faith trusts in the divine work and devotes herself wholly to God with dutiful reverence.
The virtue of Faith is depicted as a woman holding a church, chalice and cross.
Below Faith are a few curious figures. The ‘winged man’ represents the human aspect of Christ, riding on a lion, representing both the apostle Mark and the resurrection. The ox represents the sacramental nature of Christ. The Eagle represents the apostle John. All four of these symbols were said to have been seen as guardians of the throne of God by the prophet Ezekiel.
In the upper left-hand corner of the tapestry, you can see a depiction of the story of Jacob’s ladder: an angel climbing into heaven. The ‘chariot of fire’ next to it represents the prophet Elijah. The blindfolded woman on the pedestal represents “old law.”
In the upper right-hand corner of the tapestry is the figure of James the Greater, who in medieval iconography was often depicted as an avenging knight riding into battle.