The Gift of the Heart
© 1983 RMN
At the dawn of the 15th century, the style known as “International Gothic” had spread throughout Europe, and was widely embraced in tapestry-making. The tapestry known as the Offrande du Coeur (“Offering of the Heart”), doubtless woven in Arras c.1400-10, reflects the aristocratic ideals of the early 15th century. It illustrates one of the commonest themes in the iconography of courtly love - a nobleman offering his heart to his beloved. The theme also features in courtly romances such as the Romance of the Rose and in the works of important medieval French writers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Christine de Pisan. It was often depicted on caskets or ivory boxes containing mirrors. The scene is set in a garden. The characters are wearing garments fashionable in the early 15th century. Arras, then part of Flanders, is generally agreed to have been the main European center for tapestry-making in the early 15th century, but there were also workshops in Paris, where the cartoons for this tapestry are thought to have been drawn. Contacts such as this between the principal artistic centers were common in early 15th-century Europe.
n courtly love the knight experiences different stages in the conquest of his lady; these were codified in the literature of the twelfth century. The gift of the heart is one recurrent theme. Around 1400, when this tapestry was made, the most celebrated and widely known of the courtly writings was the Romance of the Rose. It describes the suitor’s progress through a “Garden of Love” where the rose to be plucked was none other than the lady herself. Let us begin with the knight’s declaration of love. Observe the heart, the symbol of love offered by the lord to his lady, and note the circle made by the animals surrounding the two symmetrically balanced figures. The figures and the landscape are handled differently: strong contour lines make the figures stand out sharply and hatching is used to convey relief, whereas the landscape is evoked by a repetition of identical but variously colored geometrical motifs. The expressiveness of the figures contrasts with the decorative character of the landscape.