The previously unpublished Philosophie belongs to a series of the Liberal Arts and is probably its main subject. There are four other subjects from the same group known to survive; Aritmetique in the Musée de Cluny, Paris (F. Joubert, La Tapisserie Médiévale au Musée de Cluny, Paris, 1987, p. 162, cat. XVI), Dame Rethoricque in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris (F. Joubert, op.cit, p. 164, illustration 160), Musicque in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (A. Cavallo, Tapestries of Europe and of Colonial Peru in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Boston, 1967, vol. I, p. 77 and vol. II, pl. 18) and Astronomie in the Röhsska Museet, Gothenburg (E. Strömberg, Astronomie - en fransk medeltidsgobeläng, 'Röhsska Konstslöjdsmuseets Arsbok 1963 - 64', Gothenburg, 1964, p. 20).
All five tapestries depict the main female character, symbolising a Liberal Art, surrounded by supporting figures. She always wears a similarly cut dress, necklace, headdress, and apart from Astronomie, a loosely hanging belt. Philosophie most closely compares to Musicque, as she is also seated on a closely related stone throne, has a closely related cloud formation to the sky, but most interestingly a small naked boy in the foreground blowing a horn, a figure which is also found seated on the tray of Nature in Philosophie.
Philosophie is the only tapestry of the series to have preserved its borders. They are very distinct and appear to be unique. Interestingly Aritmetique was photographed between the two World Wars, before its restoration in 1937 (F. Joubert, op.cit., p. 163, fig. 159). In this photograph the window to the left in its interior setting was patched, being described as fragments anciens. This fragment corresponds extremely closely to the cherubs in the borders of Philosophie, indicating that the patch was almost certainly a segment of Aritmetique's original border, thus linking these two tapestries closely. Interestingly the columns framing Philosophie are also almost identical to the right framing column of Aritmetique. In addition the swags at the top of the images of Aritmetique and Dame Rethoricque appear to be lacking on Philosophie. Philosophie has, however, been reduced in exactly that area, and there are small remains of the swags still visible just above the throne and to the right of the tree held by Nature.
Aritmetique has previously been most closely compared to Dame Rethoricque, based on a similar setting within a building and both depicting a very similar dog in the foreground. Cavallo believed Aritmetique and Dame Rethoricque certainly to have been woven at the same time and probably in the same atelier, while he left it open if Musicque was of the same set, or simply from the same cartoons and woven at a different time. Philosophie links the group more strongly, as it compares very closely to Musicque, and at the same time to with Aritmetique and Dame Rethoricque.
Aritmetique has variously been attributed to French or Flemish workshops. Bruges has been suggested as one of the more likely places of manufacture, for it features what appears to be an inverted b, which was later the town mark for Bruges, in the floral swags. This attribution is tantalising as the loose and open placements of the figures in this set is a dominant feature found in later Bruges works. On the other hand the figure to the far right of Aritmetique is found in reverse in Le Départ de l'Enfant Prodigue in the Musée de Cluny (F. Joubert, op.cit., cat. XV, p. 156, fig. 148). This latter tapestry has on stylistic grounds been firmly attributed to the marchand Arnold Poissonnier of Tournai, which suggests that the Liberal Arts series was probably woven in the same town.
The additional repetition of the flute player in the background of Musicque in Intermède Musical of a hunting tapestry series in the Musée de Cluny (F. Joubert, op.cit., cat. XVII, pp. 168 - 178, fig. 168), suggests that the series was composed of existing models or prints. It is intersting to note the close similarities of the birds in the hunting tapestry series to the bird perched in the tree of Philosophie.
The first mention of a tapestry series depicting the Liberal Arts is in a 1379 inventory of Charles V of France which lists: ung grant beau tappiz... qui est à ouvraige d'or, ystorié des Sept sciences et de saint Augustin and another tappiz des Sept Sciences. The earliest series to survive date from the early 16th Century and include Philosophie.
A tapestry which must have been conceived by the same cartoonist, or an artist who had access to the same designs, and which was possibly woven in the same workshop as the Liberal Arts is Scenes from the Passion of Christ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (A. Cavallo, Medieval Tapestries in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1993, p. 526, cat. 44). It has virtually identical framing columns and almost identical clusters of grapes as Aritmetique.
Nature, to the right of Philosophy, compares in her free movements and lightly flowing dress to two dancing maidens which are depicted in the centre of a large tapestry illustrating Humanity Surprised by the Seven Deadly Sins from the series The Triumph of the Vertues over the Vices. The series was woven in circa 1520 in Brussels, and is now in the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels (Tapisseries bruxelloises de la pré-Renaissance 'Exhibition Catalogue', Brussels, 22 Jan. - 7 Mar. 1976, cat. 24, p. 105). These figures appear to be based on two figures in Parnassus by Andrea Mantegna, which were probably known of by the cartoonists from prints.
Throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages the Seven Liberal Arts were understood to be the pedagogic programme of the free gentry of elevated social status, who did not need to pursue financial objectives. Philosophy, the supreme effort of human intelligence, consists of the Trivium, the less exact of the Liberal Arts, and the Quadrivium, the exact arts. Martianus Capella, who wrote De nuptiis Mercurii et Philologiae between 410 and 439 AD, described this division and in his treatise on the marriage of Mercury and Philology, how Philology was accompanied by seven maidens, each with attributes and flanked by great men who had distinguished her science. It parallels the arrangement in Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura frescoes. There is the figure of Philosophy on the vault (whose text 'Causarum cognito' is an abridged version of the Virgilian tag here) associated with the gathering of philosophers known as The School of Athens. Indeed, Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle and Socrates are common to both representations, and the presence of Homer among the 'sages' is unsurprising at this date. This accessible demonstration of the subject met with great success and the seven maidens representing these arts survived history far into the Middle Ages.
The combination of Philosophy and Nature is unusual, because they tend to be mutually exclusive. The most obvious textual sources for the personifications were Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Alain of Lille's Complaint of Nature. In Alain's poem, Genius is associated with Nature, and may be the diminutive figure she is holding on what appears to be a dish. Philosophy was regarded as the 'mother' of the Seven Liberal Arts - her inclusion indicates that the set of tapestries originally numbered eight.