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The Battle of Roncevaux

  • Object:

    Tapestry

  • Place of origin:

    Tournai, Belgium (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1475-1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Tapestry-woven in wool and silk

  • Museum number:

    T.95-1962

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval and Renaissance, room 62, case WE

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This is a fragment from a large tapestry-woven hanging, probably from a History of Charlemagne series. The story is taken from a later version of the Chanson de Roland and shows a mêlée in the battle of Roncevaux, where Roland, with his sword Durendal, is in combat with the King Marsile. The real battle was the last of Charlemagne's first campaign to capture Spain, an attempt that ended in failure. Roland and the rear guard were left behind by the main army, and were attacked at the Roncevaux pass in the Pyrenees by the Basques on 15 August 778 AD. The Franks were completely annihilated.

The battle was later romanticised into a major conflict between Christians and Saracens, although both sides were Christians, and Charlemagne comes to the rescue of Roland and destroys the Saracens.

Physical description

Tapestry woven wool and silk on a wool warp. This is a fragment from a larger hanging showing a skirmish in the Battle of Roncevaux. Roland with his sword Durendal is in combat with King Marsile. Oliver brandishes his sword on the left. The Saracen is about to strike a blow with the 'Morningstar' beneath. Inscribed 'roland', 'durendal', 'marsille', 'bau' (duin) and 'olivier' accordingly.

Place of Origin

Tournai, Belgium (probably, made)

Date

1475-1500 (made)

Artist/maker

unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Tapestry-woven in wool and silk

Dimensions

Height: 253.5 cm, Width: 338.5 cm, Height: 99 in, Width: 132 in

Object history note

There are Burgundian archaisms in Roland's arms, the fleur de lys showing his relationship with Charlemagne. In style the tapestry shows the extreme limit of a surface filling design. There are three other fragments of the V&A piece in private possession in France.

Historical significance: Crowded compositions with static court scenes interspersed with violent battles became popular in tapestry in the second half of the 15th century.

Historical context note

The source of the story in the tapestries is pseudo-Turpin's version of the Chanson de Roland and especially La Bataille de Rainchevaux, a 13th century account deriving from pseudo-Turpin. The real battle was the last of Charlemagne's first campaign to capture Spain, an attempt that ended in failure. Roland and the rear guard were left behind the main army, and were attacked at the Roncevaux pass in the Pyrenees by the Basques on August 15, 778, when the Franks were completely annihilated. This minor battle was romanticized by oral tradition into a major conflict between Christians and Saracens (both sides were Christians), where Charlemagne comes to the resue of Roland and destroys the Saracens. When The Song of Roland was written down, by an unknown troubadour of the 11th century, it became the first chanson de gest or epic poem of medieval France.

Descriptive line

Tapestry woven wool and silk 'The Battle of Roncevaux', probably made in Tournai, 1475-1500

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Wingfield Digby, G F & Hefford, W., The tapestry collection: medieval and renaissance (London: H.M.S.O., 1980), pp.18-19, pl. 15.

Labels and date

BATTLE OF RONCEVAUX
A favourite medieval tale of chivalry, the Song of Roland, told of the death of Roland, nephew to the Emperor Charlemagne, at the battle of Roncevaux. This tapestry, part of a much larger hanging shows an earlier episode in the battle, when Roland slew his opponent, King Marsile, with the famous sword named Durandal.

Other subjects from this series can be seen in Brussels, Dijon, Tournai, Stockholm and Florence.

FLEMISH; probably from TOURNAI
Designed and woven between 1450 and 1475
Museum number T.95-1962 [pre 2003]

Materials

Silk; Wool

Techniques

Tapestry weave

Subjects depicted

Horse; Soldiers; Swords; Body armour; Roncevaux; Roland

Categories

Textiles; Interiors; Tapestry; Wall coverings; Arms & Armour

Collection code

T&F

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Qr_O111973
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