Hic transit Burgundia


Millefleurs armorial tapestry with the arms of
the Duchy of Burgundy (detail), Brussels, 1466.
Wool, silk, gold and silver thread,
3.96 m x 6.87 m.

In Switzerland, ancient, dentally challenged peasants in funny be-antennaed berets still grin ungainly grains at the mention of the battles of Grandson and Murten (1476). "We sure taught him a lesson", they say and laugh. "He" is Charles -- Charles the Bold, as they say the English, though Charles le Téméraire would perhaps be better translated into English as Charles the Rash.

This was a nickname he acquired on account of his violent, unpredictable nature and his inclination to treat his enemies with undue and unchivalrous harshness. The sum total of Charles' achievements was to destroy, in a series of disastrous campaigns, the state his ancestors had built over centuries, Burgundy. They had made it one of the most powerful and richest states in fifteenth century Europe; certainly its most cultured: home of the Flemish oil on wood, tapestry, and the isorythmic motet. He frittered it all on pointless wars which, had he even won them, would have served him nothing. His life ended fittingly: some time after his death, his body was discovered and pulled, naked, disfigured and frozen, out of a marsh outside Nancy, his last siege, as disastrous as all the others.

His father, Philip the Good, had commissioned the above tapestry in 1466 as part of an eight-piece chambre-de-verdure, which dispensed entirely with the depiction of human or animal figures, writes Hali.

Instead, all eight hangings had a ground composed of flowering plants on which the arms of the Duke of Burgundy seemed to float. The escutcheon is surmounted by the jousting helm, which, with its nine bars, indicates ducal rank. Attached to the latter is its cover, the formerly purple lining displaying Philip's personal emblem, a fire steel with fire stone and flames. This emblem is also seen in a larger format in all four corners of the tapestry. Towering above the helmet, the rest is a carved and guilded fleur-de-lis. Laid around the escutcheon is the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the insignia of the chivalric order that Philip founded in 1430. It is one of twenty five such collars that the Burgundian court jeweler made for members of the order, the links in the chain being fashioned like a fire steel. An enormous variety of naturalistically rendered plants are interwoven in the millefleurs ground, but the overall effect is of balance and rhythm.

Philip's son, Charles, reveled in lavish displays and insisted on carrying his state treasury around with him on all his wars. This is how the chambre-de-verdure fell into Swiss hands; and how this piece has come to reside in the Bern Historisches Museum. We know that it was still hanging over the choir stalls at the Bern cathedral shortly before Reformation, but it had been divided into horizontal strips, evidently to make it fit its location.

The remaining seven millefleurs from chambre-de-verdure have been lost.

In honor of this grievous loss, and the loss of the Duchy of Burgundy, and of Charles's ignominious, but fully deserved, death, let us listen in silence to Antoine Busnois' Missa L'Homme Armé.


Post a Comment