Reims: Tapestry of the Immaculate Conception

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: What are the fifteen symbols of the Immaculata represented on the famous tapestry of Our Lady in Reims, France?

A: The famous tapestry of Our Lady in the Reims Cathedral comprises fifteen tableaux relating the life of Mary. It begins with the tree of Jesse, tells the story of Joachim and Ann (eviction from the Temple {II} and encounter at the Golden Door {III}), then moves into Mary's life.

IV Birth of Mary
V Presentation of Mary in the Temple
VI Perfections of Mary (the tableau presented here)
VII Bethrothal of Mary and Joseph
VIII Annunciation
IX Nativity
X Adoration of the Magi
XI Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
XII Flight into Egypt
XIII Holy Parenthood (family relations of Our Lady)
XIV Death of Mary
XV Assumption

It was a medieval custom to decorate the interior walls of cathedrals with precious tapestries. The tapestries of Our Lady's life were donated to Reims Cathedral by Archbishop Robert de Lenoncourt in 1530. Their exact origin is unknown. They may have been woven in the studios of Arras or Tournai. Many of the scenes represented are taken from the apocryphal gospels (Golden Legend and Biblia Pauperum). The many symbols used in these panels attempt to link Old and New Testament. One of the most important themes represented in these tableaux is that of Mary's purity and perfection, probably in reaction against Protestant criticism.

Tableau # VI, which is called The Perfections of Mary, makes allusion to the Immaculate Conception whose special devotion gained in popularity during the 15-16 centuries. The tapestry is dominated by God the Father declaring Mary the wholly beautiful without stain of imperfection ("Tota pulchra es amica mea et macula non est in te." Canticle 4,7) In the center of the picture we see Mary weaving, flanked by two angels bringing bread and wine. She is sitting in the enclosed garden whose door posts are surmounted with flags showing the coat of arms of Reims cathedrals. The two unicorns, right and left of the columns symbolize Mary's virginity. Between God the Father and the Enclosed Garden we can see the seven angels of creation (one for each day). In the lower right and left corners we find the figures of unnamed prophets proclaiming Mary's grandeur as alluded to in Proverbs "Mary gave proof of her skillful hands," and: "the merits amassed by Mary are by far more important than that of other women." All other elements refer to Mary's perfections.

The fifteen symbols used to visualize and symbolize Mary's perfections or her Immaculate Conception are images taken from the Old Testament mainly. In these symbols the Immaculate Conception is compared to beauty, proximity to God, abundance of god, immortality, strength, victory over evil, and purity.

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