The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

A visit to see The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum is an awe-inspiring experience; an intriguing viewing of tapestries exploring the senses.

The Lady and The Unicorn tapestries, “La Dame à la Licorne”, are one of the most accomplished and beautiful series of tapestries in the world. They are considered to be one of the most significant works of art produced in Europe during the Middle Ages, a peerless example of French medieval tapestries.

They are believed to have been produced for Jean Le Viste in the Southern Netherlands workshops. There is little information about Le Viste, although records suggest his family were originally from Lyons and that he was actually the fourth Jean Le Viste of the Le Viste family. More than thirty years before the tapestries were commissioned, in 1464, Jean Le Viste, a lawyer, became a Counsellor to the court of King Louis XI and Parliament. After the King’s death in 1483 he continued to be a close advisor to his successor Charles VIII and in 1489 he became a president for one of the Royal Courts of Justice.

Although Jean Le Viste was from a wealthy family, he was not of noble blood. Around 1475, at the age of forty three, he married Geneviève De Nanterre from a noble family. This leads us to ponder if the noble lady of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries is Geneviève? Jean Le Viste died in 1500 at about the time it is thought the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries were created. It is his coat of arms that is featured on the pennants. Is this the reason why he chose to commission these tapestries? He might have foreseen that an elaborate series of tapestries such as these would have historical significance.

The Lady and the Unicorn – Tapestries exploring the Senses

A set of similar tapestries, known as ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’, were commissioned by A Mon Seul Desir tapestry - Cluny MuseumAnne of Brittany around the same time. These were created to celebrate her marriage to Charles VIII of France. So it may be no coincidence that The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries were commissioned by Le Viste, since he was close to Charles VIII.

His set of six tapestries was woven in wool and silk based on set of cartoons (working drawings) produced in Paris. All feature Jean Le Viste’s coat of arms. Five of the six tapestries represent the five senses, and all depict a woman of nobility with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. The sixth tapestry is known as ‘À mon seul désir’, the words on the central tent canopy. It is generally translated as “To my Only Desire”, emphasizing their symbolism of a love affair.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are true to the popular Mille Fleurs (thousand flowers) style which was most commonly woven into the background of tapestries at the time. ‘À Mon Seul Désir’ tapestry is the largest of the series and has been the subject of numerous interpretations over the years. In this final tapestry, the lady places the necklace which has been worn by her in all the other tapestries into an open chest. Some say this represents her love or even her virginity. Another interpretation is that this a symbolic rejection of the passions which are touched by the five senses, and therefore an assertion of her free will.

The five other tapestries clearly depict the five senses with the animals involved in the portrayal of each sense:

  • Le Toucher – Touch, where the lady holds the horn of the unicorn,
  • Le Goût – Taste, showing the lady accepting sweetmeats from her maid,
  • L’Odorat – Smell, the lady makes a wreath of flowers while the monkey smells a dropped flower,
  • La Vue – Sight, the seated lady holds a mirror,
  • L’Ouïe – Hearing, the lady plays an organ while her maid pumps the bellows.

The tapestries had been stored at Boussac Castle damaged by dampness and by rats until they were discovered by the writer, Prosper Mérimée, in 1841. However, it was George Sand who brought them to the attention of the public in one of her novels, Jeanne. Since 1882, the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries have been on display at the Musée du Moyen-Âge in Paris, the Musée de Cluny, in their own magnificent exhibit room. Today we can enjoy many reproductions of each tapestry (see images) woven in France or Belgium, all lined and having a rod pocket for easy hanging.




Medieval wall tapestries

Medieval wall tapestries – a history starting with the Bayeux Tapestry.

Around 500AD, when Rome could no longer contain the fierce Northern European, tribes, the Roman Empire was replaced by much smaller kingdoms. The thousand years which followed are known as the medieval period. Despite the collapse of Rome, the Catholic Church continued to be a powerful institution unifying all those kingdoms. The Church became the centre for learning during these times: in science, the arts, in medicine, as well as religious culture. The rich culture of this medieval period eventually paved the way for many of the ideas which would mark the start of the Renaissance.

Historians believe small scale tapestries were produced throughout medieval times across Europe. By the end of this period, tapestries adorned the walls of castles and churches throughout the kingdoms. Tapestries were not only used in a propagandist way, to narrate the stories of brave knights or to present Christian teachings but were practical, providing insulation and decoration for wealthy homes. Hand-stitched medieval tapestries were relatively coarse in comparison to those created on a loom. However, the tapestry weaving process did allow the production of complex imagery on a vast scale with some medieval tapestries produced in sets of several pieces. At this time a tapestry could sometimes be more than ten yards long and up to five yards wide, woven by small teams, perhaps a father and his sons. It was a laborious process.

Unfortunately, few tapestries managed to survive the wars in these centuries. However, one of the most famous medieval wall tapestries ever created did survive: The Bayeux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux). Completed in 1076, this “tapestry” (actually an embroidery) depicts and records the events which led up to the invasion of England in 1066, the Norman Conquest (see above image). Originally hung in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy, today the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed at a dedicated museum in Bayeux, seventy metes long although only fifty centimetres high.

Medieval Tapestries were enriched with metal and silk threads producing ostentatious displays for both the Church and the aristocracy. Early in the fourteenth century, a substantial industry evolved for the production of high quality tapestries. This new surge of tapestry production was assisted by the abundance of skilled weavers and the support of many local guilds who actively encouraged large scale tapestry production. This was especially true in Northern France and the southern regions of the Netherlands. During the Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, Paris was considered the most influential producer of tapestries in Europe although many weavers left France for Holland and Belgium during the unrest.

The 1400’s marked the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, a period which would 14th century tapestries - the historical context in artbegin and end at different times for different countries. It marked a renewed interest in learning and brought about a definitive change in the design of tapestries, especially notable in the first half of the fifteenth century. More emphasis was placed upon the line and pattern of the tapestry narrative, rather than its volume. This can be seen in the difference between the Apocalypse Tapestries at Angers woven in about 1380 and the Lady with the Unicorn series, now at the Cluny Museum, woven over one hundred years later. Incidentally, the Musée de Cluny in Paris, now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge, is the best place to view medieval art spanning the centuries.

Mille fleur tapestries (thousand flowers) often featured local nobility who had commissioned these pieces, such as grapes harvest scenes and La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale series including The Promenade tapestry. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a significant number of tapestry workshops, mainly based in Northern France, were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries. Today, we can step back in time and enjoy medieval wall art in our own homes, including excerpts from the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The medieval period was an epic time of knights, gallantry, myths and legends – beautifully complex, colourful scenes which reflect the period’s rich history, and thus today reproductions of these medieval wall tapestries make a wonderful addition to any home.






The Unicorn Tapestries

The Unicorn Tapestries are among the most significant medieval tapestries ever created.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, as they are sometimes called, are a truly awe-inspiring series of medieval tapestry art. It has been long speculated as to why this set of seven Flemish wall tapestries was produced and what are its true meanings. Historical records suggest Anne of Brittany originally commissioned them in celebration of her betrothal to the French king, Charles VIII, with the weaving taking ten years, completed around 1505. Art historians from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York feel sure they would have been displayed together in their illustration of the complete story, the hunt of a somewhat elusive unicorn.

The Hunt Of the Unicorn tapestries are often referred to as simply The Unicorn Tapestries. This set should not be confused with a similar collection of tapestries known as The Lady and The Unicorn. La Dame à la Licorne, as they were originally known, is a set of six tapestries commissioned by Jean Le Viste, also toward the end of the fifteenth century, now displayed in Paris at the Musée de Cluny. Both series are heralded as medieval masterpieces.

The Unicorn Tapestries are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed at ‘The Metropolitan Cloisters’ gallery, a medieval style building overlooking the Hudson River. Germain Bazin, the former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris, once described this remarkable building as “the crowning achievement of American Museology”. The Metropolitan Museum originally acquired the building with funds donated by John D Rockefeller who also donated the tapestries to the museum in 1937. He had purchased the collection in 1922 from the La Rochefoucauld family of France, who previously owned them for hundreds of years, paying a million dollars for the collection.

The Unicorn Tapestries portray each stage of the hunt for the unicorn from the start of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestriesthe hunt for this elusive creature, its pursuit and capture, its death and ultimately the resurrection of the Unicorn. The first of these tapestries, The Hunters enter the Woods (left) shows the beginning of the hunt with the seigneur and two noblemen placed to his left. Although the scene is portraying a certain similarity to any stag hunt of the day the men are not dressed for hunting nor riding. Instead they are attired in rich clothing and on foot. Only three keepers and four hounds are included. The first of the unicorn tapestries named ‘The Start of the Hunt’ is just over twelve feet long and fourteen feet high. Produced in the Southern Netherlands, all the tapestries have a woollen warp and were created using wool, silk, metallic and silver threads.

Both the first and last tapestries in the set are completely covered in a complex and accurate selection of flora. This greatly reflected the ‘Mille Fleurs’ tapestries which were very popular during the time. It was highly symbolic and depicted myths and legends with great detailing. The penultimate of the series depicts the unicorn being slain and its corpse transported on horseback to the lord and lady of the castle: ‘The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle’. During these times, it was believed that those who possessed the magic horn of the unicorn would be purified. In the final piece, The Unicorn in Captivity, the unicorn is resurrected, and despite being trapped by a fence and in chains, seems content in his ‘garden of paradise’. Pomegranate juice and seeds, resembling wounds, are symbolic of immortality and of Christ; the captured unicorn thus representing Christ resurrected. However, they could also be a reference to fertility and an abundance of children.

Today, several reproductions have been produced from the Metropolitan Cloisters tapestry gallery by French and Belgian tapestry weavers: The Hunters enter the Woods, The Unicorn is Found, and The Unicorn in Captivity.





Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom

How tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom combined to revolutionize this ancient art.

All of the tapestries available on our website are Jacquard woven. What does this signify? A trip back to the thoroughly revolutionary times in France takes us to the life of Joseph-Marie Jacquard.

During the French Revolution large numbers of tapestries were burnt to retrieve the precious gold and silver threads they contained. Further, the literal death of the aristocracy removed the market for these luxury goods. The future for tapestry weaving looked bleak until an unsuccessful weaver opened up new options with mass production.

Joseph-Marie Jacquard

Jacquard was born at Lyon, France on July 7th 1752. He learnt to weave from his father when only ten years old. After the death of his father he inherited two looms but his business fared poorly and he was forced to move to Bresse taking work as a lime burner, while his wife stayed at Lyon. In 1793 he returned to part in the defense of Lyon, after which he was employed in a factory, and used his spare time to construct an improved loom based on ideas he had developed over the years.

At that time the slow high warp loom used since medieval times was still in use. (Some later purist like William Morris would still favour it – his first tapestry, Acanthus and Vine, was woven on such a loom installed in his bedroom.)

His revolutionary loom was shown at the industrial exhibition at Paris in 1801, and in 1803 he traveled to Paris to work for the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers. The many improvements in weaving offered by the loom ensured its general adoption by weavers and by 1812 there were 11,000 Jacquard looms in use in France. The loom was declared public property in 1806 and Jacquard was rewarded with a pension as well as a royalty on each machine. He died at Oullins (Rhóne) on August 7 1834, and in 1840 a statue was erected to him at his birthplace in Lyon.

The Jacquard loom

A Jacquard loom is a mechanical loom which uses a series of punch cards to control the weaving of patterns. Prior to its invention weaving was a labour-intensive process that relied on experienced professionals to produce even straightforward textile designs. The introduction of the Jacquard loom allowed weavers to concentrate more on the quality of designs produced, and to standardize the quality of the weaving itself. This effectively mechanized the production of tapestries and textiles.

Tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loomThe process uses punch cards that control a sequence of movements that would ordinarily be accomplished by hand. Although tapestry weaving is a complex process, there is a great deal of repetition in terms of looping threads. The threads taken together make up a weft, with individual threads lying above or below the weft, making a discernible pattern. The Jacquard loom automated this process of positioning individual threads thus removing much of the time-consuming repetition.

The punch cards have holes through which a hook can pass, determining whether the thread lies above or below the weft. Therefore the cards themselves are used to control the pattern. Most importantly the cards can be reused, allowing a degree of standardization in designs and patterns.

In many respects the Jacquard loom was a precursor to later machines that were more adept than humans at repetitive tasks, ultimately leading to the computer. The loom itself does not compute since the human controlled punch cards provide the information to make a given tapestry. This information is “stored” in the punch cards, allowing the same loom, and the same human weaver, the opportunity to weave any tapestry.

The Jacquard Loom was the first to rely on ‘controlled sequencing’. As well as having a huge impact on the mass production of tapestries it was the concept behind the ability to alter the weave pattern by swapping the cards, which acted as a catalyst for the creation of computer programming. The mathematician Charles Babbage intended to use the ‘controlled sequencing’ principle of the Jacquard Loom punch cards to store programs in what Babbage referred to as his ‘Analytical Engine’. The Babbage Engine is considered to be the first ever computer and was developed from 1837 until his death in 1871.

It is important to stress that the punch card system used in a Jacquard loom controls the tapestry weaving process, not the design. In addition the natural variations in all textiles mean that no two tapestries are ever the same. This is one of the many reasons tapestry wall-hangings are valued as much as they are – even today, using modern weaving techniques, each is a unique piece of art distinct from all others.

This loom took weaving from the domain of expensive experts to the world of mass production, at least by the standards of the 19th century. Since then, tapestry weaving and the Jacquard loom remained largely unchanged until the introduction of modern looms where computers store the information for a tapestry design, removing the need for punch cards. However the principle is identical to Jacquard’s own tapestry weaving loom from over 200 years ago. We have many reasons to be grateful to him.





Verdure tapestries

A history of tapestry art with descriptions of verdure tapestries available today.

Tapestries were produced in Europe from around the twelfth century when, it is believed, the art of weaving was introduced from the East. Some small scale tapestries may have been produced during early medieval times. However, it was towards the end of this period, and throughout the Renaissance, when tapestry art production prospered. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, France and the Low Countries would create some of the finest tapestry art ever produced. After The Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, many weavers left France and moved northwards. Many tapestries were destroyed during this protracted war but afterwards a new period of learning and artistic development would begin.

The Renaissance marked an important revival of the arts, and major design changes came about for tapestries. By the second half of the fifteenth century many workshops, especially in Northern France and the Southern Netherlands, were exporting tapestry wall-hangings throughout Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Brussels tapestry workshops began to dominate production. Once again, war would disrupt production, as weavers were forced to relocate. Later, toward the end of the sixteenth century, Paris, became the recognized European centre for tapestry weaving.

Verdure Tapestries

It is not entirely certain where verdure tapestries were first produced. However, it is known that by the sixteenth century, they had become a recognized tapestry art form. The word ‘verdure’ derives from the French word ‘vert’, meaning green. Initially, verdure tapestries were characterized by their green tones, complex foliage and flower motifs – such as the Aristoloches wall tapestry (left). Forests and woodlands were typical scenes. As their popularity rose more expansive, and expensive, designs incorporating wildlife were woven. It is these more elaborate designs that we most often associate with the verdure style today. For centuries verdure tapestries remained highly popular and were made on a large scale for export. That was, until the arrival of wallpaper, which served as a more economical way to decorate a room.

In recent years verdure tapestries have seen a revival. These can change a room by creating a striking and impressive focal point, something which cannot be matched by wallpaper alone. The subtle earthy tones of this form of wall art can deliver that, whilst also being compatible with almost any style of décor (see above). Today, these tapestries are produced by respected weavers in France, Belgium and Italy, in a range of sizes so we can enjoy their aesthetic beauty virtually anywhere..

There is a good selection of themes to choose from: forests and lakes, flora and fauna, plus wonderful images of French châteaux, hunting tapestries, classic gardens and scenic landscapes. Quite a number are available in matching pairs. The lush greenery depicted in verdure tapestries, along with the idyllic scenery cannot help but create a beautifully harmonious room; peaceful, yet unobtrusive imagery which will complement and add to the ambience of your home. Further, a wall tapestry is an investment that will be there for generations to come.



Sistine Chapel tapestries – Raphael cartoons

The Sistine Chapel Tapestries were produced from cartoons by Raphael and hung for special occasions.

Only seven of the ten original cartoons, ie the working drawings, produced by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel tapestries survive today. The Raphael Tapestries, as they have since become known, were created during the High Renaissance, and were commissioned around 1515 by Pope Leo X. It is believed that they were completed one year later because a final payment was made to Raphael on December 20th of that year. They were first displayed in the Sistine Chapel during the Christmas celebrations of 1519. It should be remembered, even though Raphael had completed the cartoons for the tapestries, they still had to be woven!

The Sistine Chapel tapestries depicted the Life of Saint Peter and Saint Paul as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Four of the ten original Raphael tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Peter: “The Death of Ananias”, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, “The Handing Over of the Keys” and “The Healing of the Lame Man”. The six remaining tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Paul: “The Conversion of Saint Paul”, “Saint Paul in Prison”, “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens”, “The Blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer”, “The Sacrifices in Lystra” and “The Stoning of Saint Peter”.

Since both St Peter and St Paul were martyred for their faith, Pope Leo X, who commissioned the series of tapestries, was probably using the tapestries as propaganda. The Sistine Chapel was originally restored by Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere during the late fifteenth century and Pope Leo X decided to replace the old tapestries of Pope Sixtus IV, showing Christ’s Passion, which were showing the strains of time. As was customary for the period, Pope Leo X also ensured his own coat of arms was included within the borders of the new tapestries. The Brussels workshop of Pieter Van Aelst made the Raphael tapestries, as they did all the tapestries produced for the Vatican. This weaving workshop was thought to be the finest in Europe. The very first set of ten tapestries were always hung in the Sistine Chapel. It is believed that these original Raphael tapestries were burned to retrieve the precious metals woven into them. Later, several other sets of the same tapestries would be woven including a set for Francois I, King of France, and for the English King, Henry VIII. The most recent new sert was created during the eighteenth century. In 1983, the complete set was again displayed at the Sistine Chapel.

The Raphael Cartoons are as famous as the tapestries for which they were made. (They were, in effect, the prototypes for the tapestries, paintings from which the tapestries were woven.) There were ten tapestry cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X although, originally, the Sistine Chapel tapestries were to be a sixteen piece set.

As Raphael knew, the Sistine Chapel tapestries would be directly compared to the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling thought by many to be the greatest masterpiece by Michelangelo. The ceiling had only been completed around two years beforehand. Also, there must have been the added pressure of knowing that Michelangelo actually disliked Raphael. However, regardless of how famous and revered the Sistine Chapel ceiling has become, the admiration for the Sistine Chapel tapestries and the cartoons from which these were made has earned them acclaim worldwide.

The cartoons for these tapestries do not have the same intricate detail for which Raphael is famous within his paintings. This is because Raphael understood that preparatory cartoons for tapestry wall-hangings need bold composition, not fine detail. A tapestry is always worked on from the reverse side so therefore the Sistine Chapel tapestries are also a reverse image of Raphael’s cartoons. The cartoons are just over three metres high, and between three and five metres wide.

Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestries were painted, with glue distemper, onto many layers of paper which were also glued together. Today, the cartoons have been mounted onto canvas and are permanently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Records show that Raphael was paid one thousand ducats for these cartoons. The tapestries themselves cost much more to produce, fifteen thousand ducats. Therefore, the Sistine Chapel tapestries cost five times more than the ceiling, a huge sum of money for the day.

Raphael seemed to understand many aspects of tapestry production: reducing detail, emphasising structure and composition. Even so, the tapestries were subtle with regards to colour, like his paintings. It must be remembered, Raphael was not a tapestry artist but was commissioned to produce cartoons for a set of tapestries. Simply because tapestry weavers were capable of producing more colour tones does not mean that he would use them just for the sake of it. Raphael had his own sensitivity and it was this acute perceptiveness that made him one of the great masters.

Charles I bought the cartoons when still the Prince of Wales, not yet King. He was rather flighty about the purchase and used an agent to secure the cartoons for the low price of three hundred pounds. The resulting tapestries were woven for Charles in Mortlake by the River Thames on a low warp loom for five hundred pounds. Afterwards, the cartoons were placed in storage at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. Somewhat curiously, and thankfully, Oliver Cromwell did not sell off the Raphael cartoons. However, three of them did go amiss at this time. The cartoons Raphael produced for the Sistine Chapel tapestries have been studied by many artists over time and played a role in the development of English art, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they were described as “the Parthenon sculptures of modern art”.

Baroque tapestries

Baroque tapestries include many splendid series of Louis XIV chateaux masterpieces of Louis XIV woven in France, tracing their history back over centuries.

Scenery and landscapes have always been highly popular subjects for Tapestry Art. The Romans, Greeks and, later, the rulers of medieval Europe would sometimes commission a tapestry to record great battles and other important events. The famous ‘Odyssey’ written by the Greek, Homer, in 800BC was translated into tapestry art thus making his stories accessible to all the ancient Greeks, not just those who could read. Tapestries were created in ancient Egypt (there is a drawing of a tapestry loom in one of the pyramids) and by the Inca tribes.

Louis XIV chateaux tapestries

Landscape tapestries provide a pleasing play of colour and light with their three-dimensional perspective and depth. For those who love the grandeur of castles, reproductions of a famous series of chateaux tapestries like the “Tenture de Maisons Royals” might be considered. These ‘Tapestries of the Royal Households’, the Royal Residences, were originally commissioned by Louis XIV circa 1670. Originally a set of twelve tapestries, each tapestry represented a month of the year with each depicting a different French royal chateaux. I remember visiting the Chateau of Blois which had some of these large tapestries hanging dramatically from floor to ceiling along a hall.

Tapestries of the Royal Households - The Royal ResidencesThese were designed by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the ‘Premier Paintre du Roi’ of Louis XIV, ie Louis’ court painter. They include the ever-popular Royal Palace tapestry, also called Verdure au Chateau tapestry: a good example of the baroque tapestries typically associated with the flamboyant reign of the Sun King.

Another piece from this same Royal Residences of Louis XIV tapestries set is ‘Château Bellevue’, again with a deep, elaborate border framing the tapestry with its view from a balcony. These all reflect the highly detailed and elaborate tone of French tapestry art during the seventeenth century.

Today’s wide range of classical reproductions often have their roots based in historical masterpieces. Now, artists are not limited to producing tapestries to satisfy the requirements of the rich aristocrats who once commissioned them. Thanks to modern technology, producing a tapestry is less labour intensive, making Baroque tapestries and all other styles affordable for everyone. They are a popular modern day choice for the home with their beauty, warmth and tactile qualities.


Flemish tapestry art

Flemish tapestry art – an historical background study of Flanders tapestries.

Flemish tapestry art at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries meant primarily Brussels tapestry; the city had become the principal centre for tapestry weaving, with a character and technique quite unlike that in other workshops. Novel characteristics there were recognisable in a bias towards painting. Today the design of a tapestry is often traced to a famous painting this Old Masters selection represents these.

Such sources of inspiration can usually be adduced; for instance, the Annunciation and the Adoration in the Musee des Gobelins in Paris have similarities with Vrancke van der Stocken, while the tender yet regal Virgin in Glory (dated 1489) in the Louvre recalls the work of the Maitre des Feuillages en Broderie.

The cornice and subdivisions into triptychs framing the various episodes alone indicate an inspiration taken from pictorial works which were not intended to have any connection with weaving. This method of narration was employed commonly even in cartoons, as can be seen in the famous ‘tapis d’or’ (Cloth of Gold) at the end of the century; so called on the account of the abundant use of gold thread. The narrative tension which is so characteristic of the Tournai tapestries is suddenly relaxed and replaced by an ordered rhythmical composition calculated to reveal the quality of the woven material as well as the subtle imagery.

The stories of the Virgin in the Spanish collections and the Apotheosis of Charles VIII – recently restored to its original vast size in the Metropolitan Museum in New York – are true ‘woven’ altar pieces. The scenes are materially divided by small arches and columns in imitation of the wooden engraved and gilded cornices of church altar pieces. Later, in the 16th century, these visible divisions disappeared and tapestries were framed in figured borders of flowers and fruit, while the composition retained the earlier clear rhythm with its balance and feelings of space.

Society was always changing; and Flemish tapestry art reflected the new tastes, beginning a transformation from being ‘a woven wall’ into a fabric which, according to the prevailing fashion, was more decorative than utilitarian.

The creator of the Brussels style of weaving in the first quarter of the 16th century – a period dubbed the ‘Belle Époque’ – is generally thought to be Jan van Roome, who did the rough sketch for the Communion of Herkenbauld in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire in Brussels. He was court painter to Margaret of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles V.

We know of Knoest, who signed the Finding of the Cross, now in the Musee Royaux d’ Art et d’ Histoire at Brussels, and the variously identified ‘Philiep’ whose name is woven in to the Descent from the Cross in the same collection, a work closely related to the other Descent in the Pallazzo Reale, Naples. In both works Italian knowledge and influence is superimposed on the Flemish tradition, revealing generally the extent of contemporary civilisation across Europe.

The story of the Brussels looms, however, has still not been fully traced. Some outstanding tapestries generally attributed to itinerant weavers in the Loire Valley, have now been related to Brussels. The origin, as well as the date, of some series of tapestries remained for a long time mysterious. The theory that they were done by itinerant weavers from central France has been widely held. Among these are the six celebrated tapestries of the Dame a la Licorne in the Musee de Cluny, with the arms of the la Viste family. This decorative work of exceptional quality reflects a heraldic and courtly ideal, more abstract than real, subscribed to more as a beautiful myth than history. There are obvious affinities with certain Flemish examples, as much in the weave as in the design. A credible parallel can be drawn connecting a particular figure in the Dame a la Licorne series with certain others in the story of Perseus (private collection), and with the Illustrious Women in a series woven in between 1480 and 1482 bearing the arms of the Cardinal Ferry de Clugny. However, the Dame a la Licorne tapestries were dated later (about 1509-1513) by most scholars and incidentally seemed somewhat archaic. Recently a comparison of the background of the Dame a la Licorne tapestries with the tapestry in Berne bearing the coat of arms of Philip the Good of Burgundy, which was certainly woven in Brussels, has revealed striking similarities. Historical research has shown that the set in the Musee de Cluny in Paris was woven for Jean la Viste before 1500, probably in 1480-1490. Indeed the very existence of the itinerant weavers seems now to be questionable.

The Brussels origin of the Dame a la Licorne throws a new light on the origin of many other celebrated tapestries, for instance the Unicorn Hunt, which once belonged to Anne of Brittany and is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The same can be said of the Scenes from Pastoral Life in the Musee des Gobelins and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, of the Feudal Life in the Musee de Cluny, and of the Triumphs of Petrarch in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

The geographic region we associate  with Flanders tapestries today has a hidden richness of Flemish tapestry art.

Oriental tapestries

The popularity of oriental tapestries such as the Elephant Tapestry continues regardless of the fashions in interior decor.

Since the cultures of the Eastern world were opened up to the West by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, oriental tapestries have been among the popular styles for home interiors. For more than two hundred years the West’s intrigue in what we perceive to be as somewhat curious and exotic cultures has continued. During the seventeenth century, these tapestries reached a high point when central Asia was known as the Safavid Empire. It was the missionaries and the Silk Routes which brought the first oriental tapestries to Europe. Such a series is The Story of the Emperor of China of which we have portions available to order today.

These tapestries were first produced as rugs in the East woven by hand on a loom, using knots to create the pattern within the warp and weft yarn. In Europe, these ‘rugs’ were used as decorative wall hangings, or to drape on furniture. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century, with the rise of industrialization highly decorative oriental tapestries became readily available.

They reflect the artistic style of the East, and although certainly not the only subject matter, elephants were often incorporated within the design. Today, elephants are frequently central to the design of more classically styled, asian tapestry reproductions. Many contemporary tapestries were inspired by a design created by Jean-Baptiste-Amédée Couder. His Elephant Tapestry was originally manufactured in a factory founded by Alexis Sallandrouze in 1838 at Aubusson in central France. Today, it is displayed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Today the French weavers have produced a matching Camel tapestry so that these two can form a cohesive pair.

The Elephant Tapestry was produced between 1840 and 1843 using wool, silk and metallic threads. It is a large tapestry, almost six metres wide and seven metres high. Oriental tapestries typically incorporate a wide border which often includes several subsidiary borders. The Elephant Tapestry is highly typical of the this style and it includes a rich and complex border. It shows an woman riding an Asian elephant which is passing between a banana and a palm tree. The somewhat luxurious and detailed landscape includes many animals typical of the Asian continent.

Certain style aspects, especially the border, of the Elephant Tapestry reflect upon Islamic art. However this highly influential tapestry also shows a certain recollection of ‘Les Anciennes Indes’ (The Indies Tapestries), a series of eight wall tapestries woven at the Gobelins tapestry factory between 1692 and 1740. Jean-Baptiste-Amédée Couder, an associate of Sallandrouze, was fascinated by Islamic art and the design of the Elephant Tapestry has been accredited to him.

Crane Birds tapestry - old Chinese artThere are also geometric and floral designs which are are highly representative of eighteenth century tapestries, often with Chinese influences. The Crane Birds wall tapestry above is an example. Our favourite is the Panel with Ducks. Japanese influences were popular in the 18th century with tapestries including Chinoiserie from the “Salons Chinois” series with its delicate Japanese garden. Thus today many oriental tapestries are available reflecting the styles typical of the ancient Orient.






Francois Boucher wall tapestries – in pursuit of the idyll

Francois Boucher wall tapestries of the Louis XV period – Gobelins tapestry art celebrating the sensual Rococo style.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries are as respected today as they were during the Renaissance. This remarkable French tapestry artist and painter began his career engraving the works of Antoine Watteau. The son of a lace designer and Parisian painter he won the ‘Grand Prix de Rome’, a scholarship created during the reign of Louis XIV, which enabled him to spend four years studying at the Academy of France in Rome. During this time he was free to indulge his infatuation with the sensuality and frivolity of Rococo painting. After his return to Paris, Boucher was admitted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1765 he was appointed by the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, to became Court Painter to the King.

Francois Boucher (1703-1770) loved to focus on women and mythological themes, his paintings and tapestries being considered quite erotic for those times. Although he is considered to be one of the most influential tapestry artists in history, especially with regards to figure tapestries, his academic training enabled him to master many styles and techniques.

From 1755 until 1770 Francois Boucher was art director of the Manufacture Des Gobelins in Paris, a tapestry manufacturer established by Louis XIV famed for producing tapestries for the French kings. Today ‘Gobelins’ is run by the French Ministry of Culture and it hand-weaves contemporary tapestry art for the country’s government institutions. (My wife and I have taken the fascinating tour there.) Many of Gobelin’s most impressive tapestries were created by Boucher and Maurice Jacques. They produced a famous series of wool and silk tapestries, over four metres high and almost four metres wide. Serenade Rouge is just one tapestry of this set of four which adorned the chambers of the Duchess of Bourbon. The tapestries were sold during the Revolution.

His Noble Pastorale tapestries were woven several times at Beauvais after he was apppointed Director. This set of six large idealized pastoral scenes show him in pursuit of the idyll; Rococo shepherds and shepherdesses rather remarkably dressed in silk. We have numerous smaller details from this series available today, such as the top image.

The Triumph of Flora tapestry - Francois Boucher wall tapestriesTapestries like Serenade Rouge with decorative surrounds first appeared during the eighteenth century. But it was Boucher and Jacques who brought this tapestry style to its peak of popularity. Most tapestries before this period depicted historical events, religion and mythology. During the eighteenth century people sought tapestries with less sombre subjects and were looking for a more light-hearted and decorative styling. They were feminine and elegant; their style was unique in that these tapestries sought to imitate a variety of decorative techniques. But they also reflect heavily on Trompe l’Oeil, a technique which had been used by many artists for centuries, a style which seeks to depict things realistically and in a three dimensional light. Combining various styles, along with a vivid use of colours, makes these tapestries a quintessential example of 18th century tapestry art.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries were admired for their romance and idyllic depiction. All his tapestry works, even landscapes, achieved the same three dimensional qualities so beautifully emphasised in the ‘Serenade Rouge’ tapestry. A Francois Boucher tapestry is no longer reserved for the boudoirs of the aristocracy, now we can all enjoy his fabulous creations in our own homes. If you appreciate the Rococo style, you will enjoy these Boucher tapestries.