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The Art of Monarchy

A collaboration with BBC Radio 4 to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee

Attributed to Pieter Coeck van Aelst (1502-50)

The Story of Abraham Series 1540-43

RCIN 1046

King's Great Bedchamber, Hampton Court Palace

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Created in 1540-41 and delivered in the autumn of 1543, the series of ten tapestries with scenes from the life of Abraham is not only the most magnificent surviving tapestry series from the period of extraordinary tapestry patronage during the reign of Henry VIII, but also the most highly prized series of tapestries of that and subsequent eras. It is one of very few sets to have survived that were woven with a high percentage of silk and gilt-wrapped-thread. Other Abraham series were woven, but Henry's set was the only set with gilt thread.  The tapestries were probably designed and woven in Antwerp under the influence of Bernard van Orley (died in 1541), Michiel Coxcie or Pieter Cocke van Aelst.

The series is composed of ten scenes depicting the principal events of the life of the prophet Abraham, drawn from Genesis, chapters 12-24. Each scene is framed by a border with architectural niches with compartments of allegorical and symbolic figures, which may have some contextual resonance with the principal scene depicted, although there appears to be no particular program. The importance of the set to Henry is perhaps due to his struggle with the Roman Catholic church, and his desire to establish a separate, reformed, Church of England: just as Abraham was the father of a race / religion, so Henry presented himself as the founder of a new religion in England. Henry's self-perception was enhanced by allying himself with the Old Testament figure of Abraham. The tapestries continued to exert a powerful hold over subsequent monarchs, as they were used at the coronations of all subsequent Tudor monarchs.

Charles I regularly used the Abraham series on important state occasions, and while Charles II hung a replica series of the Abraham set in Westminster Abbey, James II hung the original set in the same space. At the Commonwealth sales, Cardinal Mazarin attempted to (and did) purchase many tapestry series, but the Abraham set eluded him. Such was its vast valuation (£8,260) at that time, it remained unsold in 1653 and was reserved for the use of Oliver Cromwell, elected as Lord Protector in 1653. The series has been displayed more or less continually at Hampton Court since Henry's day, and has maintained a powerful presence in the medium of royal magnificence.