Among the many astonishing masterpieces that travelled back to Brussels for our Bernard van Orley exhibition, one tapestry in particular stands out for its historical importance. Find out why a horse, and a view of Brussels, have set the pulse of the art world racing for several centuries.
It is not just the size and scale of Bernard van Orley’s series of twelve tapestries, spanning 73 meters in total, that make it such a key work in his career. The series is popularly known as The Hunts of Maximilian, although that title comes from an erroneous entry in an inventory in the 17th century. Its correct title is the The Hunts of Charles V, as it doesn’t depict the emperor Maximilian I but his grandson Charles V. It was probably made for Charles himself, although we lack the documentation to state that with any certainty.
Twelve hunting scenes are linked to the months of the year and to the astrological signs. Like most of Van Orley’s masterpieces the series resides in a prominent collection abroad, in this case in the Louvre in Paris, but two of them (March and September) have now travelled back to Brussels for the exhibition Bernard van Orley. Brussels and the Renaissance.
The first tapestry in the series is undoubtedly the most studied. This is not, as you may expect, January, but March. March is the first month of the Julian calendar which was in use at the time of Van Orley, and also the first month of the lunar calendar.
The tapestries are made with wool, silk, and gold and silver thread, which must have made them bafflingly expensive in its time. They depict Charles V and his hunting party in various locations around Brussels. Both the portrait of Charles V and the location it depicts make March such a pivotal work in art history.
Scholars believe that this is the first full length depiction of a rider on a rearing horse in the history of Western art. It influenced a whole host of different artists, notably Titian. The rider in question is the emperor Charles himself, whose pronounced Habsburg chin points at a cityscape in the background.
Van Orley set each of the tapestries in existing spots around Brussels, and they can be seen as a snapshot of the city and its immediate surroundings at around 1530. March shows a detailed view of Brussels from the Coudenberg Palace (residency of the emperor and the absolute centre of European power at the time) to the cathedral of Saint Gudule, with the town hall and the old church of Saint Nicolas in between.
Yet again, Van Orley does not only provide us with a stunning work of visual power and invention but with a valuable historical document: it represents the oldest known image of the castle (which burned down in 1731, the ruins were demolished to make the Royal square in 1774) and is one the oldest images of Brussels.
On show until May 25 in the exhibition Bernard van Orley. Brussels and the Renaissance at BOZAR.