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The Spheres Tapestries: Portugal’s Global History Woven in Silk, Silver and Gold

Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal (r. 1525-1578) owned an impressive collection of Flemish tapestries. Her connoisseurship and appreciation of tapestries had been cultivated since early childhood, while Flemish tapestries belonged to the tradition of Habsburg collecting in the Renaissance. Many family members (male and female) were discerning connoisseurs and collectors, investing large sums of money and time in acquiring and commissioning significant cycles and series, which enhanced their collections, residences and palaces. Catherine’s tastes aligned with family tradition. For Habsburg patrons in the Renaissance, tapestries functioned as princely decoration and were esteemed more than court portraits, paintings or sculptures. They were more valuable in cost and production than the latter media because of the extensive use of silver and gold thread. As prime examples of conspicuous consumption, few people could afford them. Tapestries provided a measure to judge the status of a great house as symbolical exponents of royal and imperial splendour. For Habsburg collectors, they mirrored dynastic claims and political aspirations. At the height of tapestry production and manufacture in Brussels in the sixteenth century, Habsburg patrons ordered and purchased the most significant sets woven in the Renaissance. For Catherine and other immediate family members, tapestries were, first and foremost, a medium manipulated to glorify Habsburg power.

The single most important artistic commission Catherine of Austria, together with her husband King João III (r. 1521-1557), undertook during their reign was the commission of a series of five tapestry panels from Flanders, named The Spheres, which celebrate the conquests, maritime achievements and navigational innovations of the Portuguese during the Age of Discovery. These weavings conspicuously honour Portugal and its establishment of a global trade empire which stretched from Lisbon to Goa while paying visual tribute to the Avis dynasty. In the guise of Juno and Jupiter, Catherine and João III are imaged as rulers of a global and heavenly (terrestrial and celestial) empire (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Attributed to Barend van Orley, Earth under the protection of Jupiter and Juno, Brussels (workshop of Georg/Joris Wezeleer), c. 1530-1535, Brussels, wool, silk and silver with-gilt-metal-wrapped thread, 344 x 314 cm, Madrid, Patrimonio Nacional, inv. no. inv. 10005825. Inscription in upper border banderole: GLORIA SVMMA / NAM SVA IPSIVS SOLA © Patrimonio Nacional

Three panels of the original commission —the Terrestrial, Celestial and Armillary Spheres— are still in Madrid's Spanish royal collection, the Patrimonio Nacional, today. The imagery of the Spheres is complex and intricate in the conception and design of the individual panels in which the contribution of humanists, scientists, cosmographers and astrologers active at the Lisbon court is evident. These tapestries stress Portugal’s contribution to navigation, astronomy, astrology, cartography and commerce - accomplishments which thrust this small Atlantic kingdom into a pre-eminent position at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Yet, it remains an enigmatic commission. Why is such an important cycle not fully documented, or why were these weavings not recorded in contemporary Portuguese royal inventories? There is no information on when the commission was carried out, which artist, which scientific advisors, conceived the project, who executed the preliminary drawings (patrons), or which Flemish workshop was responsible for their weaving. The larger cartoons have been attributed to the Flemish painter Barend Van Orley, who was active at Catherine's aunt's Mechelen/Malines court, Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands (r. 1519-1530).

These exceptionally luxurious and expensive gold, silk and wool tapestries were woven, probably in Brussels, between 1520 and 1535. On the lower right bottom of the border, a weaver brand, comprising a flower with two leaves and a crown above, is attributed to the Brussels dealer, merchant and weaver, Georg/Joris Wezeleer (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

Detail with the mark of the Brussels dealer-merchant Georg/Joris Wezeleer

The Spheres tapestries acquired enormous status and significance at the Lisbon court, becoming the flagship of the dynasty, used to mark every ceremonial event and state occasion, displayed in the most representative room, the Sala Grande, of the Lisbon royal palace, the Paço da Ribeira. Philip II of Spain stole this set and other representative tapestries when he conquered Portugal. He took the Spheres to Spain upon his return in 1583. They were given a preeminent place in the royal collections of the Alcázar palace in Madrid, proudly exhibited at many state occasions, as in 1660, when the Spheres tapestries were showcased at the wedding festivities of Philip IV’s daughter, Maria Teresa, to Louis XIV of France.

Fig. 3

Detail with cherub heads, the nine winds, above Earth

King of the Gods

Earth under the Protection of Jupiter and Juno is the central panel of the original five tapestries (see Fig. 1). João III and Catherine are imaged in the guise of the Roman mythological god and goddess, Jupiter and Juno, standing on large banderoles upheld by two winged (male and female) figures personifying winds. Jupiter was the god of the sky, thunder Olympus, and the king of the gods in Roman mythology. Between the illustrious royal couple floats a terrestrial globe (earth), symbolising their universal sovereignty over the world.

The earth, the centre of the universe in Ptolomemaic astronomy, is suspended between the moon and the sun (the celestial worlds). Nine winged cherub heads surround the earth above (Fig. 3), and the three below represent cardinal and principal winds - Boreas, Caecias, Apeliotes, Eurus, Auster/Notus, Lips, Zephyrus and Sciron. Favonius is the west wind, Septentrio the north, Auster the south and Eurus the east. The eight principal winds are Tramontana, Greco, Levante, Sirocco, Ostro, Africo, Ponente and Maestro. Pythagoras of Samos (c. 560-480 BC) viewed all parts of the cosmos as spheres and the earth as a sphere suspended by the wind. In antiquity, Juno personified air, while the winds embodied spirits and, in Renaissance allegories, the Four Elements. These ancient winds later became the angels, or wind heads, found on mappa mundi and portolans, the maritime sea charts which measured distance and direction, created and illuminated in the Lisbon royal scriptorium by renowned court artists such as Antonio de Holanda, a Flemish miniaturist and father of Francisco de Holanda.

Fig. 4

Detail of Earth with Portuguese forts and factories in Africa and Asia

Specific cities, sites and fortifications in Africa and Asia are marked on the terrestrial globe between Jupiter and Juno. Nineteen crosses and flags flying the Portuguese cost of arms, pinpoint with geographic precision the Portuguese factories (feitorias) and forts scattered around the world (Fig. 4). A skilled cartographer drew this globe for the tapestry weavers, with place names and depictions of lakes, rivers, mountains and islands. The anonymous designer, perhaps Flemish or German, included images of local wild animals (elephants), native figures and symbols representing buildings. Jupiter/João III points with his sceptre to the city of Lisbon, the caput mundi and mercantile centre of his overseas trade empire with its abundance of spices, commodities, luxury goods, precious stones and pearls (Fig. 5).The globe portrays West Africa, the Cape of Good Hope, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Calicut in southern India, and parts of the easternmost extremities of the Portuguese global world.

This tapestry epitomises João III and, by extension, his queen consort, Catherine/Juno, dressed in allegorical half-armour, pointing at Jupiter as the ruler of the world. As the power couple of their time, these monarchs reigned over geographically distant territories, connecting oceans and continents (Fig. 6). In the heavens above them, Abundance, Wisdom, Fame and Victory exalt their renown and wise and glorious rule. In this panel, global harmony reigns in the celestial and terrestrial worlds. The symmetrical alignment of the earth, moon and sun underscores Jupiter and Juno's authority and supremacy. This tapestry portrays João III and Catherine standing on either side of the globe, which visualises in threads of gold and silver Portuguese dominion in Asia and the Far East as established by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

Fig. 5

Detail with King João III of Portugal personified as Jupiter

The Latin inscription in the border above, adjacent to the ubiquitous armillary sphere, the personal emblem and devisa of João’s father, King Manuel I (r. 1498-1521), reads (in translation): “All powerful is his glory because these regions belong to him.” This message underscores and reinforces the imperial and global iconography deployed at the Lisbon court by João III and Catherine of Austria.

It is a spectacular work of art, having survived the vicissitudes of time and remaining in near pristine condition.

Dr. Dr. hc Annemarie Jordan Gschwend

Fig. 6

Detail with Queen Catherine of Austria personified as Juno


Iain Buchanan, Habsburg Tapestries (Turnhout: Brepols, 2016).

Guy Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry (New York: Harry Abrams, 2000).

Dagmar Eichberger, ‘Tapestry Production in the Burgundian Netherlands. Art for Export and Pleasure’, Australian Journal of Art, 10 (1992), pp. 23-43.

Campbell, Thomas, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002), p. 268, fig. 112.

Concha Herrero Carretero, Renaissance Tapestries from the Patrimonio Nacional’, Resplendence of the Spanish Monarchy. Renaissance Tapestries and Armours from the Patrimonio Nacional, edited by A. D. Ortiz and C. H. Carretero (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991), pp. 54-57.

Concha Herrero Carretero, ‘Serie de tapices de Las Esferas’, Carlos V. La Náutica y La Navegación (Barcelona : Sociedad Estatal para la Conmemoración de los Centenarios de Felipe II y Carlos V, 2000), pp. 258-259.

John Hewitt, ‘The Terrestrial Sphere of "The Spheres" Tapestries - Revisited’, The Globe, 81 (2017), pp. 21-36.

Annemarie Jordan, Portuguese Royal Collections (1505-1580): A Bibliographic and Documentary Survey, Master Thesis (George Washington University; Washington, D.C., 1985).

Annemarie Jordan, The development of Catherine of Austria’s collection in the Queen’s household: Its character and cost, PhD dissertation (Brown University: Providence, R.I, 1994).

Annemarie Jordan, Catarina de Áustria. A Rainha Colecionadora (Lisbon: Temas e Debates, 2017).

Annemarie Jordan Gschwend and K.J.P. Lowe, The Global City. On the Streets of Renaissance Lisbon (London: Paul Holberton, 2015)-

Paulina Junquera and Concha Herrero Carretero, Catalogo de tapices del Patrimonio Nacional. Volumen I: Siglo XVI (Madrid: Patrimonio Nacional, 1986), pp. 100-103, Series 15, panel no. 3.

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1 comentario

Laura Ciccinati
Laura Ciccinati
26 nov 2023

Do you know how tall was Juana of Austria? I believe the ambassadors say she was a tall woman, right?

But what I don't understand is that it is said her brother Phillip II was said to have been short. It's very rare for a woman to be taller than her brother, but it's not said that Juana was short like Phillip. Isn't this strange?

If you know someone who knows the answer, please ask that person for me or give me her contact. I really admire your website on Habsburg women and all the research!

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