This tapestry illustrates the legend of Veronica’s veil, an episode from a twelfth-century French epic poem, La Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur (The Vengeance of Our Lord), an amalgam of apocryphal sources from the first century which tell of the Roman Emperor Vespasian’s campaigns in Jerusalem. The poem was popularized in the fourteenth century as the subject of mystery plays. Portrayed at center, Veronica has been brought to the Emperor Vespasian, who kneels before her, in order to cure him of his illness. Veronica holds the cloth with which she had wiped perspiration from Christ’s face as he carried the cross on the road to Calvary. Christ’s image was transferred to the cloth along with his miraculous healing powers. Undoubtedly woven by the finest weavers, it is remarkable that this tapestry escaped the French Revolution when a vast number of tapestries containing gilt or silvered threads were melted down and destroyed.
Tapestries were ubiquitous in the castles and churches of the late medieval and Renaissance eras. They were portable, and provided ready insulation and decoration. Their hand-woven stitches enabled the creation of complex figurative images on an enormous scale. "Emperor Vespasian Cured by Veronica's Veil" illustrates an episode from "La Vengeance de Nostre Seigneur", a twelfth-century French "chanson de geste". "The Vengeance of Our Lord" is part legend and part fact. Popularized by early translations of Jacobus de Voragine's "Golden Legend", the poem grew to a long narrative that by the late fourteenth century had become the subject of a mystery play performed as an adjunct to the Passion.
According to legend, the gravely ill Emperor Vespasian sent his emissary Volusian to Jerusalem in search of the physician who cured all diseases by his word alone. Learning of Christ's recent crucifixion, Volusian brought to his master one of Christ's followers, Veronica. For it was Veronica who stepped from the crowd to wipe perspiration from Christ's face as he carried the cross on the road to Calvary. Christ's image was transferred to the cloth she used along with his miraculous healing powers.
On the Lehman tapestry Veronica stands at center, delicately holding her veil, while the elderly Vespasian, swaddled in an ermine-collared cape, approaches with quiet gratitude. At left, Volusian draws attention to Veronica's veil. The densely populated interior is patterned with luxuriant fabrics, especially in the canopied bed coverings. The narrow border of intertwined flowers and birds relates the tapestry to the workshops of Brussels in the first half of the sixteenth century. Undoubtedly woven by the finest weavers, it is remarkable that this masterpiece escaped the French Revolution when a vast number of tapestries containing gilt or silvered threads were melted down and destroyed.
Inscription: Inscription of name below the left foot of the old man in the right foreground: VEZZPEIANVS (worked over linen padding in gilt metal threads); on the veil: IHESVS NAZARENA.
Sackville de Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent, England; [J. Seligman, Paris]; J. Pierpont Morgan, New York; [French & Company, New York]. Acquired by Philip Lehman through French & Company in April 1916.
Christa C. Mayer-Thurman. "European Textiles." Robert Lehman Collection. XIV, New York, 2001, p. 3-7, no. 1.
Date: ca. 1500Medium: Wool, silk, and gilt- and silvered-metal-strip-wrapped silk in slit, dovetailed, and interlocking tapestry weave with supplementary brocading wefts (in sewing basket, Joseph's coat, and hem of Mary's cloak)Accession: 1975.1.1913On view in:Gallery 959