ORIGIN OF THE SERIES
Pieter Coecke van Aelst embarked on the creation of the tapestry series of The Story of St. Paul series, possibly the first he designed, as a set of nine panels in circa 1529 - 30. Coecke was clearly inspired by the more famous Acts of the Apostles designed by Raphael between 1516 and 1521 which included several scenes devoted to St. Paul, but he interpreted the scenes and figures in his idiosyncratic 'tormented’ style.
16TH CENTURY WEAVINGS
The first citation of a set of these tapestries is in the records of Francis I, King of France, in January 1533 which mentions a payment to the tapestry merchant Joris Verzeele for a set of St. Paul tapestries consisting of seven panels. Unfortunately this presumed first set was burned during the Revolution in 1797. A total of nine weavings of this series are recorded in the 16th Century, of which six survive at least in part today. Apart from the Francis I set, one was woven for Mary of Hungary, first recorded in 1558, and partially preserved in the Spanish Royal Collection, another for the Dukes of Lorraine possibly mentioned as early as 1541 which may have entered that collection through the marriage of Francis of Lorraine to Christine of Denmark, now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Interestingly these first 3 weavings omitted two subjects, including the 'Burning of the Books’, which by inference would suggest that these two scenes were added later, albeit with no stylistic difference to the earlier scenes. The first time they were woven was as part of a set supplied to Henry VIII between 1538 and 39, now lost, and he also commissioned a further, less elaborate set between 1545 and 46, now disbursed. Another set is first recorded in the collection of Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, nephew of Pope Clement VIII, which was subsequently split up and disbursed. Three other sets, one in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, one in the Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo and another in the Schlossmuseum Arnstadt, complete all the known 16th Century series.
Although these initial nine sets were woven in relatively short succession further versions were woven in the 17th Century. Two scenes, including the present subject, continued to be woven in Brussels in the early 17th Century by the weavers Jan Raes the Elder and Jacob Geubels the Younger to complement the Raphael Acts of the Apostles series. The St. Paul directing the Burning of the Heathen Books scene was split into two panels for these later weaving. One such set is in the Patrimonio National, Madrid, possibly woven for Archduke Albert and Isabel in 1620. A further partial set survives in the Museo Arqueologico Nacional, Madrid, consisting of 9 panels, while another single panel by Raes survives in the Church of Notredame in Hal, Belgium (P. Junquera de Vega, C. Diaz de Gallegos, Catalogo de Tapices del Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid, 1986, set 48, pp. 62-74).
COMMISSION OF THIS SUBJECT
It is perhaps not surprising that the first weaving of the St. Paul directing the Burning of the Heathen Books subject was for Henry VIII, possibly as a specific commission by him. As head of the English Catholic Church, he ordered the burning of 'Heretical Books’ in his 'Proclamation Prohibiting Unlicensed Printing of Scripture’ of 1538 and could claim legitimacy to do so on the basis of St. Paul’s actions. He could use this particular tapestry subject as propaganda, so it is an interesting coincidence that he ordered his first set with this subject at about the same time as he issued his Proclamation.
Jan Raes was one of the eight most important tapestry weavers of Brussels in the early 17th Century. He formed part of a dynasty of three identically named weavers and was granted the weaving privileges in 1613 and 1629 and was burgomaster of Brussels in 1634 - 1635.
(E. Cleland, ed., Grand Design, Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2014, pp. 124-175)