This huge, Flemish, sixteenth-century tapestry shows an important strategic victory for Cyrus the Great, the legendary founder of the Persian empire, in his war with Queen Tomyris and the Massagatae. The overall color palette of the tapestry is cream, tan, blue, and pinky-red, but the textile is faded and worn. In the background of this crowded scene a battle rages. There are dozens of armoured soldiers with long spears among rolling hills dotted with trees, shrubs, and castles. In the center of the foreground, a tall, vine-clad pear tree, ripe with fruit, stands between the two rulers: Cyrus is on the left and Tomyris on the right. Both are dressed in formal sixteenth-century European court garb. Cyrus sweeps off his hat in a chivalrous gesture as he looks at the Queen and gestures to his left. He points to a well dressed, man with his head lowered who is being supported and restrained by a pair of armed men. Behind them are other helmeted soldiers. Queen Tomyris is crowned and clothed in a long, floral patterned gown with a lengthy train and an even longer blue cape. Her body leans toward her restrained son with both arms reaching out. She holds a scepter vertically, positioned directly in front of the pear tree trunk. To her right, three ladies-in-waiting hold her train and look either at each other or down at the ground. On the far left, two other expensively dressed young women kneel in the grass and flowers that dot the foreground. One of them, in a blue gown with brocade sleeves and an even longer train, looks towards the arriving army and throws out her arms. Her companion clutches her breast. The tapestry has a continuous wide border of flowers, fruit, and foliage arranged in rounded, mixed bouquets. The posies and cornucopia of fruits are connected with sprays of small flowers and flower laden vines. They are spread along a continuous reddish brown, striped ribbon form.
(active Netherlands, about 1525)
Queen Tomyris Learns that her Son, Spargapises, Has Been Taken Captive by Cyrus,
Wool warp (6 yarns per cm); wool and silk wefts
408.9 x 469.9 cm (161 x 185 in.)
This tapestry belongs to a series of five depicting scenes from the life of Cyrus the Great, legendary founder of the Persian empire. Herodotus tells of an attack by Cyrus on a distant land ruled by Queen Tomyris. Cyrus sacrificed a portion of his army to entrap the enemy by leaving them behind feasting on a large banquet. Tomyris’s troops, led by her son Spargapises, attacked Cyrus’s decoy troops, then stopped to consume the remains of the food and wine. Cyrus ambushed them and captured the queen’s son. Although Cyrus freed Spargapises, he immediately took his own life.
In revenge, Tomyris led her troops against Cyrus. After defeating his army, she searched the battlefield for Cyrus’s corpse and exacted her vengeance by dipping the body in blood – giving him his “fill of blood” as she had vowed. Grand gestures and elaborate costumes were frequently employed in tapestry design. The figures are expertly situated in a landscape, which serves as the setting for other elements of the story. In this tapestry, Spargapises is held captive at the left; a battle rages farther back.