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Work Tapestry of the Bears

Department of Decorative Arts: Middle Ages

Bears carrying shields emblazoned with coats of arms

Decorative Arts
Middle Ages

Ribou Marie-Hélène de

Along with another fragment in the Louvre, this tapestry must originally have formed part of a more important wall hanging. It bears the coat of arms of the Juvénal des Ursins, a family of magistrates from Champagne, for whom it was probably woven. The most renowned member of the family, Guillaume Juvénal des Ursins (1401-72), was chancellor to kings Charles VII and Louis XI. In addition to playing a decorative role, the tapestry is manifestly designed to impress.

A highly decorative heraldic tapestry

The background of the tapestry is made up of alternating vertical bands of red and white, decorated with uprooted flowers and an initial in negative that seems to be a J. Standing out against this background are two mounds of earth, forming flowered and wooded islands, on each of which stands a bear gripping a tree. The two animals have a long chain around the neck and a short cape over the shoulders. Rising up in the center of the tapestry is a great branch bearing two shields, one with the coat of arms of the Juvénals, the other with a coat of arms that seems to be that of the Sydenhall family.

The ostentatious character of the tapestry

The tapestry seems to have been largely designed to impress. The shield bearing the Juvénal's coat of arms, as well as the letter that serves as a decorative motif and could well be the initial of their name, attests to the importance of that family, who probably commissioned the tapestry. In addition, it displays two emblems of the Juvénal des Ursins, who claimed to be related to the famous Italian family of the Orsini: the bears in the center and, strewn about the background, a flower of the Acanthaceae family, "Acanthus mollis", once familiarly called "ursine" in French and today "pied-d'ours" (or "bear's breeches" in English). Guillaume, the most renowned member of the family, had himself portrayed by Jean Fouquet against a background of carved wooden panelling bearing his coat of arms flanked by two small bears and resting on a three-lobed flower, a stylized representation of "Acanthus mollis".
It is interesting to see here the coat of arms, emblem, and beginning of the family cipher being extended over the entire surface of the fabric, at a time when borders did not yet exist in tapestry.

Possible origins for the tapestry

The alternating bands decorated with floral branches link this fragment to a group of tapestries of which the most famous are the four fragments representing figures in a rose garden, known as "La Baillée des Roses" (or Presentation of the Roses), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. These are attributed to workshops in southern Flanders and are dated to 1450-55. In other respects, the motif of flowered isles set against a background of "uprooted" branches - or, as here, flowers - relates this tapestry to a group of "mille fleurs" tapestries that form part of a purely French (and specifially Parisian) stylistic trend; the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, in the Musée National du Moyen Age, is probably the best known work of this group and is dated to the late fifteenth century.
All of these considerations indicate that this tapestry was made in southern Flanders or France, during the latter part of the fifteenth century.

Technical description

  • Flanders? (second half of the 15th century)

    Bears carrying shields emblazoned with coats of arms

  • Tapestry: wool and silk

    H. 2.54 m; W. 4.55 m

  • Gift of A. Sachs, 1969 , 1969

    OA 10372

  • Decorative Arts

    Richelieu wing
    1st floor
    Scepter of Charles V
    Room 504

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Additional information about the work