Religious tapestries

Religious tapestries make an intriguing and inspirational addition to any home. They are not only of great interest to Christians but have an aesthetic appeal to art collectors. There is an extensive range to choose from, many being reproductions of some of the finest religious works of art ever produced. They have been woven since the thirteenth century, initially used to inspire church congregations, who were often illiterate, with illustrated Biblical tales.

Religious tapestries possess a beauty that is capable of enlightening those who might not consider themselves to be spiritual. They can project a positive ambience into even the dullest of rooms. Beautiful and thought provoking, they make for conversation pieces and are, of course, perfect for prayer and meditations rooms.

Religious art has long been at the very centre of the art world. After the fall of Rome artists poured their energies into the emerging strength of Christianity which swept through Europe to become the dominant force in society, culture and philosophy. From this came some of the most sublime art ever produced. The Italian Renaissance alone produced arguably some of the most distinct and well-known art in history.

Religious-related myths and legends are also depicted through tapestries. For example, Morris & Co’s ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’ series produced around 1898 had six tapestries based upon Sir Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Mort D’Arthur’, (The Death of Arthur). This fifteenth century text describes the search by King Arthur’s ‘Knights of the Round Table’ to find the ‘Holy Grail’, the legendary cup from which Jesus and his disciples drank from at The Last Supper.

The Last Supper tapestry

Several versions are woven today in Italy of The Last Supper tapestry (one is above). They are based upon a fifteenth century fresco, among Leonardo da Vinci’s most inspired works, and now among our most popular religious tapestries, indeed of any in our collection. ‘The Last Supper’ was originally commissioned by Duke Ludovico Sforza and Duchess Beatrice D’Este. It is believed that work began on this masterpiece around 1495, although the start date is hazy. As Kenneth Clark points out in his book, ‘Leonardo da Vinci’, the archives taken from the Italian Dominican convent of St Maria delle Grazie (where it was later discovered) were destroyed. Clark states, “our meagre documents date from 1497”, and by this time the painting was almost finished. However, typical of Leonardo, he did not work continuously upon it during that time.

The Last Supper is a representation of a meal during the last days of Jesus, when he foretold that one of the Apostles would betray him, as written in the Gospel of John 13:21. Tapestries which reproduce this wonderful fresco do remain true to the original. Even so, the tapestry wallhangings available today are much smaller, since the original measured twenty nine feet long and fifteen feet high. ‘The Last Supper’ completes the rear wall of the convent’s dining hall in Milan, so a dining room would be a fabulous setting for this particular tapestry within the home. The tapestries, like the original, depict the reaction of all twelve Apostles; Bartholomew, James, Andrew, Judas Iscariot, Peter, John, (Jesus central), Thomas, James the Greater, Philip, Matthew, Jude Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot (from left to right).

Madonna of the Chair tapestries - religious tapestry artFurther religious tapestry art often reproduces works from some of the greatest painters in history, from Giotto to Peruzzi. Michelangelo’s The Creation from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Robert Peruzzi’s Madonna of the Streets, El Greco’s Trinity in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and Raphael’s Madonna of the Chair (above) being among them. Although most are of an Italian classical nature they do possess a timelessness, having a certain serene quality. Religious tapestries can provide a dramatic focal point for any room.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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”.

Flanders Tapestries

Flanders Tapestries – their historical development from art influences in Europe.

In the early 16th century in Brussels, an increasing number of tapestries were produced to satisfy the ever-increasing commissions. Since the old medieval high-warp technique had been too slow it was supplanted by the horizontal  low warp loom. This accelerated the process by having pedals to work the threads of the warp and it simplified access to the cartoons placed below the loom. These cartoons, ie the working drawings, belonged to the weaver who could alter them as he wished, lend them to colleagues or sell them. Two, three or four copies were usually woven of each tapestry.

Among the well-established workshops were those of Pieter van Aelst and Pieter Pannemaker. Van Aelst was accredited to Pope Leo X and three generations of reigning princes: Maximilian of Austria, Philip the Handsome, and Emperor Charles V. He produced a number of famous series – The Passion (1507) in Trento Cathedral and in the Spanish national collection, the History of David in Sigmaringen Castle and, most famous of all, The Acts of the Apostles from the Raphael cartoons. Pieter Pannemaker’s workshop is credited with the History of David now in the Musee de Cluny, with a tapestry thought to have been made for the throne of the Emperor Charles V, and with the admirable 1516 Last Supper in the Museo d’Arte Sacra at Camaiore.

The great success of the Brussels tapestries throughout Europe was partly due to contemporary conditions. In 1519 the Emperor Charles V inherited the lands of Burgundy, Austria, Castille and Aragon becoming thereby ruler of the greatest empire in the world. Vast riches flowed into a court which dominated Europe and set new social standards of luxury for the western world. Princes, dignitaries of the church and the aristocracy all vied with one another to own the precious narrative Flanders tapestries. Faced with this demand, designs in the style of Jan van Roome’s Hortus Conclusus, charming and delightful as they were, became out of date.

A new style came from Italy, powerfully influenced by Raphael’s cartoons for the Acts of the Apostles. Italy at this time was not yet an important centre for weaving. Itinerant weavers passed through Siena, Venice, Rome, Correggio, and Ferrara but their output had been small, no more than a few local commissions. There were a few outstanding exceptions – The Passion in the Museo di S. Marco in Venice which is attributed to the designs of Zanino di Pietro or Nicolo di Pietro (1420-1430), a powerful and expressive work, unique of its kind. Then there is the descent from the Cross in the Lenbach Collection and in the Cleveland Museum of Art which was undoubtedly woven in Ferrara from cartoons by Cosimo Tura, and the elegant classical Annunciation bearing the Gonzaga arms now in the Art Institute of Chicago. These are all fine examples of 15th century weaving.

A particularly valuable series is The Months in the Castello Sforzesco at Milan, woven from designs attributed to Bramantino. This is the first series in which the Renaissance discovery of space and perspective were methodically incorporated in tapestries. When Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design the tapestries for the Sistine chapel, he knew that the cartoons should be sent for weaving to van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels.

Raphael’s influence on the art of tapestry has been exhaustively discussed. It is important to realise that Raphael did not intend merely to transfer his pictorial art on to the loom. His aim was different – to introduce both spiritual and figurative symbols in a balanced and rational composition.

The influence his cartoons had on the Brussels craftsmen was overwhelming. He gave the death blow to the concept of the ‘woven wall’, although the monumental function of the tapestry was preserved. Henceforth decoration had to conform to architectural structure and narrative to the intellectual demands of cartoon.

The arrival in Italy of these Flanders tapestries provoked astonishment at the technical quality of the weaving and also the exactness with which the tapestry followed the original painting. This appreciation each region had for the other did not necessarily involve a full understanding: the weaving of the Acts (1515-1519) marked the beginning of a long series of exchanges between the northern weavers and the Italian painters.

The next works were the lost Putti at Play commissioned at Brussels by Leo X after cartoons by Giovanni da Udine, the Grottesche also designed by Giovanni da Udine for Leo X (also lost), the Life of Christ by van Aelst from cartoons by the school of Raphael (Vatican), and the execution in Brussels of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci and offered by Francis 1 to Pope Clement VII of the Vatican.

The relationships between weavers of Italian and Flanders tapestries were further advanced with the reforms inaugurated by Flemish painters who had worked in Italy – such well known artists as Bernard van Orley (who superintended the weaving of the Acts of the Apostles at Brussels), Michiel Coxcie, Pieter Coecke, van Aelst and Jan Vermeyen. This change in taste was gradual and many of the older features still appeared – as in the Hunts of Maximilian of Austria by Bernard van Orley. The adoption of the Renaissance perspective, of vision in depth, is counterbalanced by an artificial composition in the background of the tapestry. The aim was clearly to retain the old weaving practices, which appeared indigenous to the tapestry, whilst incorporating the fresh elements.

Contemporary and traditional tastes were combined in the work of Pieter Coecke, in the History of St Paul (Vienna), and in the Seven Deadly Sins (Madrid). The cartoons of Michiel Coxcie are more in the manner of Raphael. The first tapestry woven from his Story of Genesis is in the Wawel Museum, Krakow, although here the craftsman has striven too hard for an expression which he has not fully understood.

The full effects of the new manner were not immediately evident. Jan Vermeyen, who designed the formal Conquest of Tunis commissioned by the Emperor Charles V (1554) turned to Mannerist themes in his Vertumnus and Pomona. He used designs after the ‘pergola school’ that followed at Brussels in the studio of Wilhelm Pannemaker at the same time as Putti at Play (Madrid).

Willem Pannemaker, the son of Pieter, was one of the most important weavers of Flanders tapestries then working in Brussels. Supplying the courts of the Emperors Charles V and Philip II, he produced some well known series such as the Conquest of Tunis, the Seven Deadly Sins, a copy of van Orley’s History of Jacob, and the marvellous Verdure with Large Foliage bearing the arms of the Emperor Charles V of (Vienna).

After 1528 the attribution of the various series to different workshops became easier. This was the year in which the municipality of Brussels instructed the various workshops to use two trademarks, one for the city (a red shield between two Bs, the initials of Brussels and Brabant) and a personal one. These trademarks are not all identifiable although those of the major weavers of Flanders tapestries are known.