14th century tapestries

14th century tapestries – the first part of an article about their historical context.

There is a large gap in our knowledge of 14th century tapestries; we possess only examples from the last quarter of the century. At this date the art was largely diffused throughout Europe, each district with its own style and characteristics. Large studios flourished in Paris and Arras, more modest ones were active at Tournai, and small workshops blossomed sporadically in Brabant, Hainault and Flanders. In Switzerland and Germany, groups of artisans produced strips and small panels for the local clientele. However, within the space of a hundred and fifty years, the art of tapestry had changed almost out of recognition.

It is easy to explain how techniques of tapestry reached the Franco-Flemish countries. Never had travel been as extensive as in the Middle Ages. Emperors and popes, princes and knights, priests and pilgrims, merchants, strolling players and stone carvers were always on the move; and no doubt similarly were the tapestry weavers and their looms.

In early castle inventories ‘tappiz de haulte lisse’ are only cursorily mentioned, but later more frequently. Their vast halls were decorated with ever larger and more luxurious tapestry wall-hangings, and tapestries served as screens of insulation to keep out the cold and wind. They then invaded the bedroom as bed canopies, and were spread out on benches and draped over chair backs. So indispensable and valued were these wall hangings that they accompanied their owners on journeys, and were even taken to war. Wear and tear in these circumstances was considerable and they had to be renewed at considerable cost but this was worthwhile given their considerable prestige value. To own a tapestry was a sign of wealth, grandeur and power, so on public occasions they were displayed ostentatiously as evidence of their owner’s social importance. Nor were churches content with a few tapestry wall hangings; their walls were covered and naves were partitioned with them. Dimensions increased, the spinning mills poured out their ‘fins filz’, carpenters constructed their looms, the weavers their warps – in a significant boom which reached its peak at the end of the 15th century.

In the early years of the 14th century Mahaut, Countess of Artois, was buying tapestries as fast as she could. In Paris (where the ‘tapissiers de haulte lisse’ had formed a competitive corporation in 1302) she began her purchases in 1308. In 1313 she was buying in Arras, and in Paris in 1315 we know that she acquired a panel, ‘a bestelets’, consisting of animals woven probably on a decorated background.

Only towards the middle of the 14th century did tapestry wallhangings have more common complex designs; telling true stories in instalments, each panel comprising a chapter, each series a complete tale. Sometimes they were very long, like Les Enfans de Renaud de Montauban. In the third quarter of the 14th century this type of story became firmly established. Charles V of France, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, Louis of Anjou and Jean de Berry were great patrons of the Parisian weavers. These were principally Nicholas Bataille (active c.1368-1400), Pierre de Beaumetz (active c. 1382-1412) and Jacques Dourdin (active c. 1380-1407). Competition then started from Arras: Vincent Boursette (died 1376) Huart Walois, Colart d’ Auxcy, Michael Bernard and Jehan Cosset. They were known as weavers, but were in fact ‘employers of weavers’. The Boursettes and the Walois were prominent citizens of Arras, Nicolas Bataille was valet de chambre to the Duke of Anjou – so it would be hard to imagine them working at their looms.

14th century tapestries - the historical context in artThe few surviving 14th century tapestries are among the largest in the history of tapestry. Of the Apocalypse of St John only two thirds remain (it was begun for Louis of Anjou between 1375 and 1377 in the workshops of Bataille). The preparation was long and detailed. The designer, Jehan de Bondolpf or de Bandol, known as Hennequin de Bruges (hence a Fleming), consulted illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse before undertaking the work. Several portions of the Apocalypse Tapestry are woven today. To this rightly belongs the series of the Nine Heroes with the arms of Jean de Berry (fragments are in the Metropolitan Museum, New York). Woven about 1390, a little later than the Apocalypse, but probably by the same hand, it is not by the same designer and reveals a different inspiration – the search for a chivalrous and romantic ideal. In the Nine Heroes the heroes of the ancient and modern history and of the mythology live together on an Olympus of Gothic splendour, from which the hardness of the contemporary life cannot be entirely excluded. They are surrounded by the international language of cathedral spires, with backgrounds having the appearance of stained glass and weapons chiselled like reliquaries. Such elegant subjects were addressed to the powerful and wealthy of that world.

Les Tres Riches Heures (now at Chantilly) contains a miniature painted by the Limbourgs showing Jean de Berry at a banquet wearing an elaborate velvet costume trimmed with beaver, against a background borrowed from a wall tapestry showing the feats of Begue de Belin – an undulating line of lances, helmets horses, and warriors set in a landscape of gently rolling green hills. These subjects may have accounted for the popularity of tapestry wall-hangings; purchasers may have identified themselves unconsciously and somewhat inaptly, with these heroes, their adventures and their conquests.

Philip the Bold immediately commemorated the Battle of Roosebeke where Charles VI of France and Louis de Maele suppressed the Flemish revolt, with a tapestry which was woven in Arras by Michel Bernard. This exquisite work of art in wool, silk and gold thread was more than three hundred yards square. Charles VI did likewise when he commemorated the accolade bestowed on his brother the Duke of Orleans and his cousin Louis II of Anjou in a tapestry by Jacques Dourdin and Nicolas Bataille. This work ‘toute de imagerye d’or’, was known as the Joutes St Denis. In these tapestries that have not survived the present must have seemed to join hands with an idealised past. We know that when the English won the battle of Agincourt and took Paris, the beautiful tapestries of Charles VI were looted.

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