Once Upon a Tapestry: Woven Tales of Helen and Dido presents a selection of artworks that explore the fates of two heroines from classical mythology whose stories have inspired poets, artists and musicians over the centuries: Helen of Troy and Dido of Carthage. Five tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries, along with a rare set of cartoons, illustrate the currency of these female-centric narratives in early modern Europe, the power of tapestry to visualize such stories and the inventiveness and skill employed to produce these splendid objects, made for the wealthiest and most distinguished patrons.
Homer’s epic poem of the Trojan War, the Iliad, written in the eighth century BCE, is the source for the dramatic story of Helen of Troy. Medieval poets updated the ancient tale and often added commentary to connect European nobles to their heroic Trojan counterparts. In the visual arts, these contemporized versions of the Iliad challenged artists to depict the conflict of battle, and the large-scale, multipaneled character of tapestry provided a magnificent vehicle for their ambitions. It is all the more notable then that Helen, an icon of beauty whose abduction from Sparta and her king provoked the Trojan War, figures so prominently in four of the tapestries exhibited. They chronicle Helen’s fate, from her arrival in Troy and marriage to Paris to her return to Sparta and her reconciliation with her first husband, Menelaus. Her leading role in these panels may be a stage for exploring the then-topical power of female beauty. Rich with detail, these luxurious silk and wool tableaux introduce us to contemporary court attire and to medieval stagecraft, as seen in the jewel-encrusted architectural framework that calls attention to the principal subjects.