It’s a striking example of royal PR at its most dramatic and most powerful, and it’s about to go on public display in England for the first time. The artwork, a tapestry showing St Paul ordering the burning of heretical books, was commissioned by King Henry VIII in the 1530s at the time of his most famous and controversial religious reforms. Feared lost for decades, it has now resurfaced and will be on show in London from October.
The tapestry once hung on the walls of Hampton Court Palace where courtiers and nobles could appreciate the intricate needlework, highlighted in gold and silver thread, showing St Paul directing the destruction of the books. It was part of a series of nine pieces depicting the saint’s life which Henry had made at the height of his powers.
The work, which is almost twenty feet wide, will go on show at the S Franses gallery in London. Owner Simon Franses, a leading authority in tapestry work, told the Daily Telegraph that this particular piece “provided Henry VIII with powerful…Biblical authority..for the destruction of anything seen as heathen or ungodly”.
Tapestry, still a major form of artwork in Tudor times, was a particular favourite of Henry VIII, and he is thought to have owned over 2,500 pieces. This particular work was commissioned from Pieter Coecke van Aelst in Brussels who also designed tapestries for Henry’s friend and rival, King Francis I of France, and for Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and nephew of the Tudor monarch’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon. A work of this size would take a team of around eight expert weavers up to two years to complete.
The St Paul series was still hanging at Hampton Court at the time of Henry’s death in 1547, but its last mention in royal records comes in the 18th century. After that, it disappeared before being bought by a Spanish collector in the 1970s. It was rediscovered in 2014 and went on display in Madrid for a short time.
Henry VIII made great use of art as a propaganda tool, creating an image of himself that reinforced his rule and his ambitions. This latest exhibition provides an insight into his political and religious decisions as well as showing his interest in culture and art. The tapestry will be on show from October 1st to October 19th 2018.