St. Peter's Abbey has four unique large sixteenth-century tapestries in its possession.
They are true masterpieces! They belong to a series of ten tapestries depicting the history of Peter and Paul and were commissioned by Abbot François d'Avroult, lord of Helfhaut. The fact that the tapestries were ordered for a domestic institution and not for a foreign client makes them very special. In this golden age of the Brussels tapestry art, foreign commissions were far more common.
They will soon be on display in the southern corridor of the ground floor. They will be exhibited only two at a time, changing every six months, so that they can rest in the dark at regular intervals.
Help them to find us
The ten tapestries were created for the abbey church. After the dissolution of the Abbey the tapestries were sold and travelled around extensively. So far Ghent has succeeded in repurchasing four of the ten carpets: two at an auction in New York from the National Cathedral School in Washington (numbers 3 and 7), one from a family from Toulouse (number 4) and in 2005 one of an Argentinian antiques dealer at the TEFAF Antique Fair in Maastricht (number 1). Nine out of ten tapestries have been located. Read more in Journeys.
Read more about the series of ten tapestries:
It is obvious the abbot of St. Peter’s Abbey would choose the life of the patron saint as the theme. Adding Paul is clearly inspired by the famous Renaissance tapestry series designed by Raphael: The Acts of the Apostles.
Part I. Peter
Christ walking on water and calling Peter to him
The Pentecost miracle that made the apostles speak in foreign tongues
The death of Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Bijloke museum)
Peter’s vision of the unclean animals (Bijloke museum)
Part II. Paul
The conversion of Saul
Elymas’ punishment by Paul (Bijloke museum)
Paul’s sermon on the Aeropagus in Athens
Paul’s shipwreck on Malta
The beheading of Pau
In the past, the designs of the cartoons were attributed to Raphael of Urbino, one of Raphael’s students, and later to Michiel Coxcie, the ‘Flemish Raphael’.
However, based on comparisons with his paintings, the designs have now definitively been attributed to Peter de Kempeneer (1503-1580), alias Pedro Campana, an artist who spent much of his career in Italy and Spain.
With relative certainty, the weaver mark FNVG can be attributed to the Brussels manufacturer Frans (van) Ghieteels. Manufacturer Ghieteels was also responsible for various tapestries from the Wawel Castle collection in Krakow, Poland.
All the tapestries have similar borders. Invariably, the abbey’s coat of arms and its motto ‘Pour Bien’ and the client-abbot’s motto ‘Finis Legis Charitas’ (the end of the law is love) are at the top.
In Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum there is a series of ‘Garden Views’ from the collection of Granvelle, the first archbishop of Mechelen and courtier of Charles V. The borders are all based on the same design. These tapestries were made in the Brussels’ studio of Willem de Pannemaeker, the best-known weaver of the time. Apparently, some of the cartoons were exchanged between the studios.
During the days of the abbey the tapestries were not always on view for the public at large. They hung in large wooden cabinets with ornamental doors. It was only on important holidays, for artists or distinguished travellers that the doors, embellished with flowers and landscapes, were opened to reveal the magnificent textiles.
When the monks were evicted from St. Peter’s Abbey in 1796, the tapestries were hidden. However, the French did not stop looking for the art treasures and on 2 June 1809, they were seized in the house of Benoit Angelot, the former organ player of St. Peter’s Abbey. They were sold at a public sale for 1650 francs to Thomas Hebbelynck, a sugar refiner at the Zottepoort. He planned to sell them to the city council or to another government body, but his efforts were in vain. In 1821 they were exhibited in the room of the Sint-Jorisgilde (St. George’s Guild), and again on 7 September 1821 in the Royal Museum in Brussels with a view to a public auction, but they were not sold. It is said the Vatican showed an interest in them in 1837, but again there was no sale. At the end of the nineteenth century the whole series was shipped to England. At the end of the 1930s, 5 tapestries were spotted, once again in France. During the preparations for the mega-exhibition Ghent, 1000 years of Art and Culture in 1975, it was discovered that a French private collector had cut five of the tapestries down to fit some rooms in his castle. In 1976, tapestries number 3 and 7 from the collection were auctioned publicly by Sotheby’s in New York. The owner turned out to be the National Cathedral School in Washington D.C. They did not know how they came to own the heritage pieces, but the school needed money. Professor Doctor Jozef Duverger discovered the tapestries in the auction catalogue. He tipped off the City of Ghent and the city council bought them with the aid of the Dutch Ministry of Culture. The two tapestries were restored and exhibited in the former Bijloke Museum (now: STAM). In 1987 the city was able to buy number 4 from a family in Toulouse. In March, tapestry number 1 was offered for sale at the TEFAF-antiques fair Maastricht by an Argentinian antiques dealer. The husband of the current manager of St. Peter’s Abbey happened to hear an announcement on the radio. After some professional advice from Professor Guy Delmarcel on the authenticity and the condition of the restored tapestry, the sale was closed with the Buenos Aires’ gallery. Four of ten famous St. Peter’s Abbey tapestries have now been returned to their original home.