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this demand, designs in the style of Jan van Roome’s Hortus Conclusus, charming and delightful as they were, became out of date.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.

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