Renaissance tapestries

Renaissance tapestries or medieval tapestries? This can be a matter of terminology though it is more historical, with the medieval period generally pre-dating the Renaissance. Throughout this overlapping period tapestry weaving enjoyed significant prestige producing memorable art.

It is generally accepted that the Renaissance began in the 15th century, ending in the 17th century. It was a time when the passion for learning was rekindled, especially in the arts, and tapestries were not excluded. Tapestries from the Middle Ages were huge narratives. However, early in the fifteenth century these medieval tapestries took on a new concept within their design. Emphasis was no longer placed solely on the sheer size of the tapestry and the complexity of the narrative.

Some of the most remarkable early Renaissance tapestries were produced Apocalypse Tapestries - Tapisseries de l’Apocalypsedue to the patronage of the court of King Charles V and those of his three brothers: the Dukes of Anjou, Berry and Burgundy. The Duke of Anjou commissioned the famous Apocalypse Tapestries (Tapisseries de l’Apocalypse) which were created by Nicolas Bataille and Robert Poinçon at Angers between 1375 and 1382. Originally, a hundred tapestries were woven for this series, of which seventy managed to survive the French Revolution. The remarkable illuminated manuscripts Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry commissioned by one of those brothers have now been reproduced as wall tapestries in three of their parts. (The one above is intriguingly photographed at the buffet table of a ship.)

When the English invaded the Loire valley region from 1418 to 1436, many weavers moved north to Arras and Tournai. These towns consequently became famous for tapestry weaving to such an extent that ‘arras’ was used to describe tapestries in various European languages and used by Shakespeare in this context.

An example of this emerging style can be seen in a series of tapestries known as ‘The Story of the Trojan War’. These were based on a composite cartoon which illustrated stories from the Trojan War. They were woven in the southern Netherlands, probably created by Pasquier Grenier of Tournai. These highly ambitious tapestries were a gift for Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and presented to him in 1472. The Trojan legends were highly appealing to the Burgundy Dukes, as they maintained that Troy’s last King, Priam, was their ancestor.

By the middle of the fifteenth century a significant number of tapestry workshops were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries, mainly based in northern France and the southern Netherlands regions.

Mille Fleurs tapestries - medieval wall tapestryFrom around 1480 to 1520 the French Renaissance tapestries known as the ‘Mille Fleurs’ (above) were produced. Mille Fleurs tapestries were highly symbolic, depicting myths and legends in exquisite courtly detail and characterized by their background which always contain a collection of small flower motifs. Hence their name, which translates as ‘a thousand flowers’. Originating in the Loire Valley, these include the magnificent set of six tapestries celebrating the senses, The Lady with the Unicorn, now on display in the Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Towards the end of the fifteenth century, the tapestries of the Netherlands became more dominated by the Brussels workshops. Tapestry production in Arras and Tournai began to decline, whereas the Brussels weavers exacted their techniques, becoming the accepted centre for tapestry design. Here, the Pannemaker family dominated the tapestry industry during the sixteenth century. The sheer scale by which the Netherlands’ industry managed to produce tapestries has never been exceeded although war later led to an exodus of weavers to other countries throughout Europe. Tapestry weaving did continue although their quality was to become only a reflection of previous times. During the years of the late 1600’s, new tapestry centres would evolve, primarily in Paris once again.

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