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.