The Diplomatic Code

A fine example of Flemish tapestry in the Residence of Ambassador Johan Verbeke has a coded message that deiplomats would do well to unravel.Pierre de Villiers investigates.

Of all the magnificent artworks at the Belgian residence in London, none is more striking than the tapestry that decorates an entire wall in the principal dining room.

Those with eagle eyes – and who know their Latin – will realise that the sumptuous wall-hanging, called The Sacrifice of Hercules, contains a message that makes it particularly apt for the residence of an Ambassador.

An inscription at the top the tapestry reads Concionatores intrant in locum ut sacrificant deo de pace – loosely translated as “a sacrifice to the god of peace”. Wise words of counsel for the many diplomats who gather around the Belgian dining room table in the midst of tough negotiations – eurozone or otherwise!

Signed by Daniel Abeloos – a celebrated tapissier who counted members of the Spanish nobility among his clients – the tapestry measures an expansive 3m high and 4.55m wide and depicts a Roman king in a blue tunic and red cloak in front of a statue of Hercules. Behind the king is a priest in a hooded robe who is about to sacrifice a bull. To the left are girls, acolytes and warriors who watch and approach the fire on the sacrificial altar.

Ambassador Johan Verbeke chose to hang this particular tapestry because it is a superb example of Belgian craftsmanship in the 17th Century.

“It is such a quintessentially Belgian piece of art made in a Brussels ‘atelier’ in the 17th Century,” he points out. “Its warmth and epic narrative overflows into the large dining room.”

The rich border contains symbols of the powerful Roman Empire such as the eagle (strength, courage and immortality) as well as olive (peace) and palm (victory) branches – and the viewer can’t help but be reminded of an earlier period in European history when much of Europe was joined together in a supra-state.

Over time the silken weft threads of the tapestry have disintegrated somewhat and the light has faded the colours, but the ideas contained within the tapestry remain as vivid today for Europe as they ever were.