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Justice of the Emperor Trajan

Justice of the Emperor Trajan, c. 1510

Europe: Flanders, 1500-1520
Wool and silk with gilt silver yarn (woven at Brussels)
129 x 145 in. (327.7 x 368.3 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation
© The Norton Simon Foundation

On view

Empathy and objectivity are seen as crucial for good judgment, as shown in this tapestry, which depicts a legendary episode from the life of the Roman emperor Trajan (r. 98–117 CE). The story is challenging to show, on account of its complexity, so it unfolds here in a continuous narrative that moves clockwise around the composition. At left, the emperor’s son pushes a boy into the Tiber, where he drowns. Above and to the center, witnesses and citizens share their bereavement with the emperor, who is identified by his imperial crown and scepter. Trajan decides that his own son must share the same fate. To the top right, the father of the drowned child carries Trajan’s son to be cast into the river. The prayers of the witnesses, however, and Trajan’s decision to sacrifice his own son as atonement, lead to a miracle. From the waters of the Tiber at right, a winged angel escorts both youths back to the safety of their parents. As exemplified here, Trajan’s unbiased leadership, and his unwillingness to make an exception for personal reasons, made him a role model for judges.

Justice was a popular theme in the visual arts between 1450 and 1550, as depicted in this weaving. In tapestry and fresco form, stories of just leaders decorated royal palaces and town halls throughout Europe. At the time of its making, this tapestry’s purpose was likely twofold: to inspire good judgment in leadership and, by association, to glorify those merits in the leader to whom it belonged. Fittingly, this tapestry was installed at the coronation of King George VI of England, in Westminster Abbey on May 12, 1937. The Earl of Southesk, Kinnaird Castle, Brechin, Scotland, loaned it for the ceremony.

The work’s appearance at such a historical event was not unusual, as tapestries often served multiple purposes. Practically, they provided insulation and warmth in old stone castles and châteaux. Hung in hallways and the grand rooms of courtly homes, tapestries also communicated political and social aims, and they embodied the wealth and prestige of their owners. Great occasions, whether related to church or state, called for hanging tapestries and other decorative fabrics in situ or along processional routes. This tradition continues throughout Europe.

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