Tapestry cartoon. Pieter Coecke. Around 1530

This huge drawing, measuring almost 4 metres by 4 metres, is composed of an assemblage of around 60 sheets of paper. It was used as a template (also referred to as a "cartoon") for the manufacture of tapestries.

The martyrdom of Saint Paul

The depicted scene is the execution of Paul, a former Roman soldier who had converted to Christianity and was an important missionary.

The scene takes place outside the centre of Rome, which is recognisable by the Coliseum.

In the centre of the composition, Paul is kneeling down, his hands bound. His executioner is holding his hair and is about to carry out the execution, witnessed by several onlookers. Here, the martyrdom of Paul is associated with the persecution of Christians which was ordered by Nero, the Roman emperor in the 1st century.  As Roman citizens, Paul and various other converts were beheaded.

The others, like the unfortunate individuals shown in the background in front of a large crowd, are subjected to a more barbaric death by crucifixion.

In Renaissance style

This work is one of the first from our regions to incorporate the new aesthetic language of the Italian Renaissance. The main characters are practically life-size, the dynamism of the figures is pushed to the extreme, and the theme honours Antiquity.

Pieter Coecke

The artist was Pieter Coecke, who was born in Aalst and became the court painter to Charles V.  Trained by Bernard Van Orley in the creation of tapestry cartoons, he achieved prominence in various disciplines. Today, he is known above all as being the father-in-law of Pieter Brueghel and for having made a notable journey to Constantinople.

His taste for the Orient can also be seen in the attire of some of the characters. The executioner, dressed as a Roman soldier, is also brandishing a scimitar, a weapon of Ottoman origin.

A fragile work

To create the tapestry for which it served as the template, the cartoon needed to be divided into long rectangles which were placed under the warp thread of the loom. Extremely fragile and used on multiple occasions, most tapestry cartoons have not survived. Fortunately, this example has escaped the ravages of time. What is more, it is the only cartoon in the world to be conserved in the city where it was created. However, comparisons with the tapestries which resulted from this template reveal that part of the cartoon is missing.

One template for multiple weavings

We also know that this cartoon has been copied, as evidenced by the needle holes which are necessary to make stencils.

Several woven copies were made based on the cartoon, or from a copy which may have been adapted to suit the tastes of patrons. Four of these  are still in existence today.  The most recent, manufactured in Brussels in the 17th century, is conserved in this museum and is regularly exhibited in this room.

A larger ensemble

The scene of the martyrdom of Saint Paul concludes a series of nine episodes recounting the main events in the life of Saint Paul. The eight other scenes are well-known, since they still exist in the form of tapestries. However, only a few fragments of the cartoons used as their templates remain, making the cartoon in our possession all the more precious.

Next step

Before leaving the room, take a look at the information terminal, which explains how the cartoon has been subject to an extraordinary restoration. Then go to the next room, and head to the right to the painting by Jan Brueghel.