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.




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

Royal Windsor Tapestry Works

The resurgence of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the designs by William Morris during the late Victorian period saw an interest re-emerge in tapestry and their designs. With most of the European workshops in decline following the French Revolution and an increasing awareness of the craft a British tapestry-weaving house was established in 1876 by two Frenchmen, Marcel Brignolas and Henri C. J. Henry. Royal Windsor was one of two tapestry houses to be established in nineteenth century England, the other was William Morris’s Merton Abbey.

Many of the workers in the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works originated from France and the Aubusson Works. Typically the women worked as tapestry repairers while their children attended a local school near the dyeing centre. Brignolas used the Aubusson influence in dyeing and colour schemes; however the exquisite and detailed work produced is probably the finest legacy of this French community. The first piece produced was a bust of Queen Victoria taken from the painting by Baron Heinrich von Angeli and adapted by Phoebus Levin. The youngest son of the Queen, Prince Leopold took a special interest in the factory and the designs, from whom it enjoyed significant royal patronage. The prince chaired the committee formed to oversee the factory and was joined by several other members of the royal family until his sudden death in 1884.

The Royal Windsor Tapestry Works are known for some very detailed and magnificent designs during their short lifetime. These include the famous Merry Wives of Windsor; a series of eight award-winning panels which in 1878 won gold medal in Paris. Telling the story of Falstaff these delicate but vibrant masterpieces possess an exquisite detail and are framed with an eye-catching border, very much in the French style and exuding cheerfulness and warmth to reflect the play. Flowers found in Elizabethan gardens such as eglantine decorate the panels and add to the detail in the picture itself. These tapestries disappeared for many years, emerging during the late 1970’s when seven panels appeared at auction.

As the Royal Windsor Tapestry Works grew in popularity Queen Victoria took an interest in the designs and encouraged other royals to commission pieces. The initial two low warp looms grew to a total of eight as the work grew in popularity and more commissions requested, with 16 in place at its closure in 1890. The Queen had several tapestry repairs completed at the factory including tapestries from Holyrood Palace.

Another famous design emerging from Royal Windsor and commissioned by the Marchioness of Lorne was a tapestry celebrating, “Much Ado About Nothing. “ It is thought this is the piece that now hangs in Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s Sofa which has two cartoons of detailed and delicate wild roses worked into the design and Queen Victoria’s monogram is a well known Royal Windsor piece and is now part of the Royal Collection.  The artists have created a unique collection which captures the British tradition and culture entwined with nature and with a French based design. Significantly these tapestries were designed for royalty and the wealthy and were not mass-produced for the emerging middle classes. E. A. Ward designed many of the pieces to come out of Royal Windsor including its largest tapestry, the Battle of Aylesford. It is believed that very few of the original designs and cartoons have survived. The pieces designed for the Mansion House in London were destroyed during the Blitz whilst others are thought to have been disposed of by Edward VII in executing the estate of Queen Victoria.

The sudden death of Prince Leopold in 1884 spelled out demise for Royal Windsor and the factory began to decline after a short life producing highly detailed and unique designs. Events coincided with a slump in the general economy and growing nationalism in Europe and further commissions could not be found. Rather than associate royalty with a bankrupt factory the decision was taken to close the works in 1890. Many of the French workers including the Foussadier family left England for America taking with the Aubusson way of working into an emerging new market and developing their expertise in the new world. Detailed tapestries remain popular today and with new manufacturing techniques, a well-made and detailed tapestry is an affordable and popular way of decorating a home.

Exotic appeal: Eastern and Oriental Tapestries

For modern home décor we are often looking for new and unusual items to add a unique touch to our home accents. Textiles and wall hangings add that distinct touch though few of us are aware of one of textile arts hidden gems: oriental tapestries.

Eastern and oriental tapestries enjoyed a period of interest in Europe from the 17th century onwards, for about 150 years. Reflecting the growing confidence of European nations and their ambitions to conquer the world, these tapestries advertised the exploits of adventurous seafaring nations and helped publicize their travels, successes and conquests. Known originally as Orientale tapestries they represented exotic far-off lands like China, often concentrating on unusual items such as fruits and animals not found in Europe. Their development as an art form can be traced back to the first accounts of Eastern countries from Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century which sparked an interest in the exotic and unusual cultures of the East that continues to this day.

This created an interest in anything related to the Orient and artists soon responded. During the 18th and 19th centuries this interest was maintained since the largely non-Christian countries in the East were still sufficiently different in culture, language and customs to seem very exotic to Europeans. Always distinctive, these Orientale tapestries tended to be tobacco colored and featured striking images of exotic creatures and people set against a vibrant backdrop. Many had details of local flora and fauna that was often remarkably accurate. Even today these tapestries continue to be popular and are a fantastic opportunity for art connoisseurs to add genuine flair and vibrancy to their homes.

One of the most distinct of Oriental tapestries is “La Recolte des Ananas” from a series The Pineapple Harvest tapestry - The Story of the Emperor of China tapestriescalled “The Story of the Emperor of China”. It shows an detailed everyday scene in China of peasants picking fruit and of the Chinese Empress gesturing towards the pineapple harvest, with a pagoda and other buildings in the background. Typical of the Oriental style it is believed to have been woven between 1697 and 1705 and commissioned by Louis Alexandre de Bourbon (1678 – 1737), son of Louis XIV. Of the original ten tapestries, six can now be seen in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Two of the most famous examples of such oriental tapoestries include “Asia” and “Royal Elephant” both designed and woven by Charles-Jean Salloundrouze de la Mornaix between 1840 and 1843. They were intended for the exposition of Industrial Products in France in 1844 and impressed audiences with their vibrant use of color and their depiction of exotic lands far away. Like all Eastern tapestries they exude a strange exoticism that is apparent even today.

Combined with the warmth of the weave found in high quality tapestries they make a real statement of taste. Whether your room is old world charm or ultra-modern minimalist, eastern and oriental tapestries add strong color and bold imagery that can enliven any environment.