14th century tapestries article – part two

14th century tapestries article – part two, describing their history and variety within Europe.

Continued from the first part

Although the English victory at Agincourt was a blow to dreams and illusions, the myth of chivalry persisted in Burgundy, whose Dukes commissioned their wall tapestries from Arras. The only documented tapestries from Arras that have survived are the ‘History of St Piat’ and ‘St Eleuthere’ in the cathedral of Tournai (1402). Their designs recount traditional tales of chivalry but the stories are told with an everyday realism which is almost middle class. In any case these tapestries were commissioned not by princes, but by the chaplain of the cathedral, Toussaint Prier. The weaver was Pierrot Fere, who was not in the front rank of great middlemen of Arras.

The exquisite early 15th century tapestry, The Meeting of Fromon and Girart in the Museo Civico at Padua, is attributed to Arras as are some of the ‘Scenes from Feudal Life’ in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and the ‘Annunciation’ in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, recalling something of the profundity as well as the tenderness of Broederlam. The same can be said for the superb ‘Crucifixion’ in La Seo cathedral at Saragossa. On a more solemn and monumental scale than in the ‘History of St Piat and St Eleuthere’, the Saragossa tapestry has the same realism; it deals with similar human emotions without concession to the age of chivalry. These are to be found however in the Devonshire Hunting scenes (Victoria and Albert Museum, London), believed to be from Arras, founded on miniatures of hunting scenes, with subtle half-tints of pink, violet and green. These belong to the second quarter of the 15th century.

Artistic and commercial relations between the Arras and Tournai were close; an Arras painter, Baudoin du Bailleul, furnishing them both with designs. And in both cities the same family of weavers had workshops. But the origin of the most important tapestries remains uncertain. The ‘History of Clovis’ in the cathedral of Rheims is an example; woven probably about 1450, it adorned the banqueting hall for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Charles the Bold with Margaret of York. The same can be said for the History of St Peter (now shared between Beauvais cathedral, the Musee de Cluny and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) which was commissioned by Guillaume de Hellande, Bishop of Beauvais, to celebrate the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453.

There is no definite means of distinguishing between the tapestries of Arras and Tournai. This might have been possible had the ‘Story of Gideon’ been preserved; it was commissioned by Philip the Good to commemorate the installation of the Order of the Golden Fleece and was completed in 1453 by two weavers of Tournai, Jacques Dary and Jehan de L’Ortye from cartoons of Baudoin du Bailleul. This series had been described in the ancient chronicles as the ‘richest tapestry ever to adorn a royal court’, a supreme testimonial to the luxury and pride of the Burgundian dynasty. As a memorial to their grandeur the Story of Alexander the Great still survives; flanked by the story of Gideon it adorned the Hotel d’Artois at the time of the ‘joyeuse entree’ of Louis XI in to Paris (1461). These are now identified as the two tapestries in the Dora Pamphili Gallery in Rome. Then there is the Story of the Swan Knight, inspired by a performance of the Voeu du Faisan at Lille in 1454; here the Burgundian Knights, recalling the deeds of the mythical hero, the ancestor of the dynasty, vowed to repeat them in combat with the enemies of the faith. This series of tapestries was woven at Tournai, perhaps in the great workshops of Pasquier Grenier.

The style of these tapestries enables them to be attributed to Tournai (the Battle of Roncesvalles in the Bargello, Florence, and the Musees Royaux d ‘Art et d’Histoire, Brussels; the Passion in the Vatican and the Musees Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels; the History of Julius Caesar in the Historiches Museum, Berne; the Story of Tideo, in the town hall of Madrid). The figures depicted are all prominently placed in the foreground, clearly outlined as if in the frame of a window. Even though the various episodes recounted took place at different times and in different places they are placed contiguously one next to the other in vertical disarray without visible division. Bearing in mind that the tapestry was then regarded as a high ‘woven wall’ having little connection with the rules of perspective taught in the renaissance, the presentation is perfectly logical.

It is difficult to say who invented this monumental treatment of serried figures. On account of their stylistic and historical elements, they have been attributed to the school of Robert Campin. Other comparisons with miniatures, stained glass, sculpture and goldsmiths work can be made. Some definite attributions can be made: The Legend of Herkenbauld in the Historiches Museum at Berne was a copy of the lost paintings of Roger van der Weyden which used to hang in the Hotel de Ville in Brussels.

The literary sources are relatively easier to determine thanks to the inscriptions which accompany each tapestry, commenting on and explaining the action. The whole literature of the late Middle Ages (including the theatre) was used. The themes vary from the miracles of Christ and the saints to exploits of valiant Carolingian Knights; they deal with even more remote and fabulous feats of Hercules and the Trojans, as well as those from the classical story of Julius Caesar and Trajan, down to the relatively recent Portuguese Conquests of 1471 (in the collegiate church of Pastrana). The 15th century tapestries comprise a kind of illustrated encyclopaedia of the knowledge, ideals, daring deeds and productions of an aristocratic society which was proud of its achievements and privileges. The Court of Charles the Bold displayed in the Burgundian decline all its pomp and riches – ironically, in view of the political and military weaknesses of his dying regime. Although threatened by powerful enemies, the ambitious Louis XI of France and the hostile Swiss, Charles set out confidently on his campaign, taking with him his finest tapestries. Nemesis overtook him on the fields of Morat, Granson and Nancy. He fell in to battle and among the vast booty captured by his conquerors was the Millefiori (Thousand Flowers) bearing the Burgundian arms. This work, now in the Historiches Museum at Berne, was woven in Brussels for his father Philip the Good.

It is not strictly accurate to say that the tapestry centre of Arras, which gave its name to the art, disappeared with the Burgundian dynasty after its destruction (for the production continued to flourish at Tournai), the art itself was henceforth transformed. The live tradition of a knightly society was no longer represented in the work of the weavers. It is suitable therefore, at this point to examine what was happening in the same field in Germany and Switzerland.

The weaving of small tapestries for altar frontals and dossal, pew covers and cushions continued in Germany and Switzerland throughout the 14th and 15th centuries. Sacred objects were selected for churches, scenes of everyday life, fables and popular allegories for private houses. The colours are vivid and fresh, intended more for decoration than fidelity to nature. The design is stylized, again for decoration purposes, although even here the influence of pictorial art cannot be excluded.

These common characteristics vary considerably from district to district. In the 14th century, the most important group of tapestries came from Constance. The Morgan Crucifixion in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Saints in the German National Museum, Nuremburg, have a definite similarity of line and are set against a monochrome background dotted with stars. Tapestries with medallions are common; the frontal wall-hanging in Thun Museum being a good example in the first half of the 14th century. Towards the end of the 14th century, the Wilde Leute make their appearances – wild-looking, hirsute men engaged in hunting and struggles with fantastic beasts, of holding placards inscribed with proverbs, maxims or moral texts. In the 15th century, especially in Basle, they dominate the scene. In Basle the scenes are mostly profane – hunting, gardens of love, monstrous animals.

Around Freiburg and in northern Switzerland the subjects are more sacred. The exquisite Gothic theme of the Hortus Conclusus occurs several times, sometimes combined with the Mystical Chase; both are interpreted in heraldic fashion, usually in fable form.

In Nuremburg the subjects were usually sacred. The strips of the Life of St Sebaldus (1410), the Life of St Catherine (1445) and the Life of the Virgin (1480) are inspired by the local school of painting. All these are in the National Museum, Nuremburg, and all were certainly woven in convents. The Passion of Schongauer was also woven in a convent; it is on a smaller scale, non-monumental, each of the nine episodes being in its own individual square. These are entirely different from the Flemish tapestry composition, whose influence began to be felt at the end of the century in Germany, an example being the Crucifixion dated 1490 in the Wurzburg Museum.

Back to … Part One of this 14th century tapestries article

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