The Judgement of Solomon
circa 1545 - circa 1555
Tapestry, wool and silk, 4½ warps per cm
3.38 m (H); 6.58 m (W)
Place of origin
OudenaardeOrder this image
Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire (Accredited Museum)
Tapestry, wool and silk, 4½ warps per cm, The Judgement of Solomon from a set of four Old Testament and Classical Subjects, Oudenaarde, c. 1545-1555. King Solomon, seated on a raised throne before a blue cloth of state, gestures with his arm to a woman kneeling to the right below him. A dead baby lies on the ground at the bottom of the steps leading up to the throne, and to the left a soldier grips a living child by the arm and holds aloft a sword, ready to cut the child in two. Another woman stands beside the soldier looking surprised, and crowds of people watch from either side. The whole scene takes place on a raised platform and to either side people can be seen approaching up shallow steps, with the landscape extending into the distance behind them. In the landscape on the far left is an altar with a sacrifice burning on it, two men standing nearby and another kneeling in prayer. On the far right is another tiny scene of a man kneeling on a hilltop raising his arms towards God who appears in a cloud in the sky. The borders of the tapestry are composed of a central palm trunk with bunches of different fruit and flowers arranged around it. There is a dark blue galloon around all four sides and in the upper galloon at the far left hand end there is a four-pointed maker's mark.
The subject of the tapestry is the Judgement of Solomon, as told in I Kings 3. Two women came before King Solomon and told him that they lived together and both had been delivered of babies within three days of each other. One of the women told Solomon that the other had lain on her baby in the night and it had died, and that the woman had then gone and exchanged her dead baby for the living baby of her companion. Both women claimed that the living baby was theirs, so Solomon asked for a sword and said that he would cut the living child in half so that each woman could have half of it. The true mother immediately said that the other should have the baby so that it would not be killed, whereas the false mother agreed to the baby being divided. Solomon immediately gave the baby to the true mother. The tapestry represents this moment, with the true mother kneeling to plead for her child's life and Solomon gesturing towards her. When the Israelites heard of the judgement "they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgement" (I Kings 3.28). The two small scenes in the landscape background of the tapestry represent Solomon's trip to Gibeon, shortly before the judgement between the two women took place. On the left he is seen making burnt offerings on an altar, and on the right is Solomon's dream in which he asked God to grant him "an understanding heart" to be able to judge the people of Israel (I Kings 3.4-9). A group of five tapestries at Hardwick have identical borders and are the same height (allowing for the fact that two has lost their upper borders). Their subjects do not form a complete narrative, three coming from the Old Testament and the other two from classical history and mythology. 'The Judgement of Solomon' (1129474.4) and 'David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem' (1129502) are related in narrative terms as David, who transported the Ark to Jerusalem, was the father of Solomon, and the two could come from a series of the 'Story of David' or the 'Story of Solomon'. Likewise the 'Rape of the Sabine Women' (1129474.1) and the story of 'Mucius Scaevola' (1129474.2) both form part of the founding myth of Rome, and could form part of a series of the 'Story of Rome'. 'Esther before Ahasuerus' (1129474.3) is not directly related to either story. It is possible that the five tapestries were part of a series embodying the exemplary virtues of the Old Testament and antiquity, rather than any particular narrative, but it seems more likely that panels from two or more different series have been combined. The borders are arranged around a central palm trunk with bunches of different fruit and flowers arranged around it at intervals. This structure ultimately goes back to a border type first used in Brussels in the 1530s, on the great tapestry sets designed by Bernard van Orley such as the Hunts of Maximilian. One of the tapestries, 'Esther before Ahasuerus', has the same basic border structure but with the addition of allegorical female figures at the lower corners. Two of the tapestries have the interesting feature of the feet of the main figures extending outside the frame into the border. This has the appearance of a playful trompe-l'oeil device, but may simply be the result of weaving a reduced-height version of an existing set of designs. Three tapestries in the set have maker's marks: 'The Judgement of Solomon' has a four-pointed mark in its upper galloon, 'David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem' has a three-pointed mark with crossed ends, also in its upper galloon, and 'Esther before Ahasuerus' has the top of a mark shaped like an 'A' in its right hand galloon. None of the marks is recorded anywhere else. The appearance of three separate marks does not necessarily mean that the tapestries are not related, as it was common for more than one workshop to collaborate in the production of tapestry sets as a way of reducing risk and speeding up production. The style and colouring of the tapestries, and the shape and position of the makers' marks, all point to Oudenaarde as the probably place of manufacture, however the quality of the design is noticeably more refined than many Oudenaarde weavings of the period. The design is comparable to a series of the 'Story of Solomon' in the Château of Adzay-le-Rideau, which have similar borders to the Hardwick set with bunches of fruit around a palm trunk, and whose elegance and clarity have been have prompted de Meûter to compare them to contemporary Brussels tapestries (de Meûter 1999, pp. 147-151). The similarity of the 'Solomon' designs to the Hardwick tapestries makes it possible that both were the work of the same cartoon painter. The Adzay-le-Rideau 'Solomon' set bears the mark of the city of Oudenaarde and that of an unidentified weaver. The Oudenaarde city mark was introduced in 1544, and on the basis of the borders and the general style de Meûter has dated the set to c. 1544-1550, noting that this is probably the earliest tapestry set that can definitely be attributed to Oudenaarde. By analogy the set at Hardwick can be fairly securely attributed to Oudenaarde, and dated to the same period. Three tapestries with the same side borders as four of those at Hardwick are also recorded: a single panel with an unidentified subject in the Victoria and Albert Museum, which may represent 'The Departure of the Prodigal Son' or 'Tobias Taking Leave of his Father-in-Law' (Wingfield Digby and Hefford 1980, cat. no. 37, pp. 46-7 and plate 57), and two tapestries in the Museo degli Arazzi, Fabriano, a betrothal scene and a sacrifice (Marabottini and Marcelli 1997, pp. 137, 139). The tapestries may well have been at Hardwick in 1601 but they cannot be definitely identified in the 1601 inventory. The inventory includes in the Low Great Chamber (today the Dining Room) a set of eight 'David' tapestries measuring 11 feet in height – roughly 3.4 metres, the same height as the 'Old Testament and Classical Subjects'. No other 'David' tapestries have survived at Hardwick, however in the past it has been speculated that the 1601 'David' set may actually have been the eight-piece 'Scipio' set now in the State Withdrawing Room (no. 1129443). The first definite record of the present set comes in 1894 when two tapestries, the 'Judgement of Solomon' and 'David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem', were in Lord Hartington's Bedroom, the present Lawn Room (Kerry 1894, p. 115). The tapestries were in the same location in 1945-6 (Devonshire 1945; Devonshire 1946). (Helen Wyld, 2011)
Possibly at Hardwick by 1601, but certainly in the house by 1894; acquired through the National Land Fund in 1956 and transferred to the National Trust in 1959.
Hardwick Hall, The Devonshire Collection (acquired through the National Land Fund and transferred to The National Trust in 1959)
Marks and inscriptions
At the left hand end of the upper galloon: An unidentified maker's mark with four points
Makers and roles
Levey and Thornton, 2001: Santina Levey and Peter Thornton (eds.), Of Household Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick, London 2001 de Meûter et al., 1999: Ingrid de Meûter, Martine Vanwelden et al., Tapisseries d'Audenarde du XVle au XVllle Siècle, Tielt 1999 Marabottini and Marcelli 1997: Alessandro Marabottini and Fabio Marcelli, Pinacoteca Civica "Bruno Molajoli", Fabriano 1997 Wingfield Digby and Hefford, 1980: George Wingfield Digby and Wendy Hefford, Victoria and Albert Museum: The Tapestry Collection, Medieval and Renaissance, London 1980 Devonshire, 1945: Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, Notes on the 6th Duke’s Handbook, written for her daughter-in-law Mary Cecil, 1945 (Unpublished manuscript, Hardwick Hall) Devonshire, 1946: Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, Notes on Hardwick following the route of the 1601 inventory, 1946 (Unpublished manuscript, Hardwick Hall) Serra, 1921: Luigi Serra, La Pinacoteca Civica ed il Museo degli arazzi do Fabriano, Fabriano 1921 Kerry, 1894: The Rev. Charles Kerry, ‘Derbyshire Tapestries’, Derbyshire Archaeological Journal, vol. xvi (January 1894), pp. 86-139