The five tapestries form part of a set that has never previously been published. There is a mention of the set by Fernand Donnet, who, in 1896, had access to documents relating to Flemish tapestry production that have sadly since disappeared, but the whereabouts of the set was unknown.
The tapestries illustrate episodes from the life of Theodosius II (401 - 450 AD) who was born to the eastern Emperor Arcadius and Empress Aelia Eudoxia in Constantinople and succeeded his father as a child at the age of 7. He was classically educated and his sister Pulcheria, a highly pious person, oversaw his moral education. He shared the consulship with Honorius and under them the eastern and western Empire worked closely together. After the Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, who dominated the political affairs, died in 414, Pulcheria rose to dominate the underage Emperor and indeed had herself made Augusta the same year. She consecrated herself to perpetual virginity, which she maintained even when she married the Emperor Marcian. This step gave her the moral authority to oversee the upbringing and education of the Emperor. She chose Theodosius' bride Athenaïs, who converted to Christianity and took the name Aelia Eudoxia. They married in 421.
Pulcheria's power was only threatened by Theodorus' wife, Aelia Eudocia, who tried to pursue more moderate religious policies. Pulcheria decreed many extreme laws against pagans and Jews. In the end Pulcheria succeeded in driving Aelia Eudoxia out of Constantinople and to leave Theodosius in the 440s.
The tapestry set illustrates this event as it was told by John Malalas (d. 576 AD) a Byzantine chronicler in his Chronographia:
It so happened that as the Emperor Theodosius was proceeding to the church on the feast of Epiphany, the Master of Offices, Paulinus, being indisposed on account of an ailment in his foot, remained at home and made an excuse. But a certain poor man brought to Theodosius a Phrygian apple, of enormously large size, and the Emperor was surprised at it, and all his Court (senate). And straightway the Emperor gave 150 nomismata to the man who brought the apple, and sent it to Eudocia Augusta; and the Augusta sent it to Paulinus, the Master of Offices, as being a friend of the Emperor. But Paulinus, not being aware that the Emperor had sent it to the Empress, took it and sent it to the Emperor Theodosius, even as he entered the Palace. And when the Emperor received it he recognised it and concealed it. And having called the Augusta, he questioned her, saying, 'Where is the apple that I sent you?' And she said, 'I ate it.' Then he caused her to swear the truth by his salvation, whether she ate it or sent it to some one; and she sware, 'I sent it unto no man but ate it'. And the Emperor commanded the apple to be brought and showed it to her. And he was indignant against her, suspecting that she was enamoured of Paulinus and sent him the apple and denied it. And on this account Theodosius put Paulinus to death. And the Empress Eudocia was grieved, and thought herself insulted, for it was known everywhere that Paulinus was slain on account of her, for he was a very handsome young man. And she asked the Emperor that she might go to the holy places to pray; and he allowed her. And she went down from Constantinople to Jerusalem to pray.
The series was woven in cooperation between Jan Le Clerc (d. 1677) and Daniel II Eggermans and was therefore almost certainly commissioned by a marchand tapissier who would have owned the designs. Interestingly the designs are based both on Pieter Paul Ruben's (d. 1640) and Jacob Jordaen's (d. 1678) style.
Initially built as a moated manor house with vast parkland, Eltham was acquired by the future Edward II in 1305 who subsequently passed it on to his queen, Isabella. Under Edward IV significant changes were made, most notably the addition of the Great Hall in the 1470s which is still visible today. Henry VIII was the last monarch to spend substantial amounts of money or time at Eltham and in the 16th century the Palace was eclipsed by Greenwich Palace and declined rapidly. In the mid 17th century, the owner, Sir John Shaw, built Eltham Lodge in the Great Park and it must have been for this occasion that he comissioned the tapestries.
We would like to thank Koen Brosens and Guy Delmarcel for their help in cataloguing this note.