The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries

A visit to see The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Cluny Museum is an awe-inspiring experience; an intriguing viewing of tapestries exploring the senses.

The Lady and The Unicorn tapestries, “La Dame à la Licorne”, are one of the most accomplished and beautiful series of tapestries in the world. They are considered to be one of the most significant works of art produced in Europe during the Middle Ages, a peerless example of French medieval tapestries.

They are believed to have been produced for Jean Le Viste in the Southern Netherlands workshops. There is little information about Le Viste, although records suggest his family were originally from Lyons and that he was actually the fourth Jean Le Viste of the Le Viste family. More than thirty years before the tapestries were commissioned, in 1464, Jean Le Viste, a lawyer, became a Counsellor to the court of King Louis XI and Parliament. After the King’s death in 1483 he continued to be a close advisor to his successor Charles VIII and in 1489 he became a president for one of the Royal Courts of Justice.

Although Jean Le Viste was from a wealthy family, he was not of noble blood. Around 1475, at the age of forty three, he married Geneviève De Nanterre from a noble family. This leads us to ponder if the noble lady of the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries is Geneviève? Jean Le Viste died in 1500 at about the time it is thought the Lady with the Unicorn tapestries were created. It is his coat of arms that is featured on the pennants. Is this the reason why he chose to commission these tapestries? He might have foreseen that an elaborate series of tapestries such as these would have historical significance.

The Lady and the Unicorn – Tapestries exploring the Senses

A set of similar tapestries, known as ‘The Hunt of the Unicorn’, were commissioned by A Mon Seul Desir tapestry - Cluny MuseumAnne of Brittany around the same time. These were created to celebrate her marriage to Charles VIII of France. So it may be no coincidence that The Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries were commissioned by Le Viste, since he was close to Charles VIII.

His set of six tapestries was woven in wool and silk based on set of cartoons (working drawings) produced in Paris. All feature Jean Le Viste’s coat of arms. Five of the six tapestries represent the five senses, and all depict a woman of nobility with a lion to her right and a unicorn to her left. The sixth tapestry is known as ‘À mon seul désir’, the words on the central tent canopy. It is generally translated as “To my Only Desire”, emphasizing their symbolism of a love affair.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries are true to the popular Mille Fleurs (thousand flowers) style which was most commonly woven into the background of tapestries at the time. ‘À Mon Seul Désir’ tapestry is the largest of the series and has been the subject of numerous interpretations over the years. In this final tapestry, the lady places the necklace which has been worn by her in all the other tapestries into an open chest. Some say this represents her love or even her virginity. Another interpretation is that this a symbolic rejection of the passions which are touched by the five senses, and therefore an assertion of her free will.

The five other tapestries clearly depict the five senses with the animals involved in the portrayal of each sense:

  • Le Toucher – Touch, where the lady holds the horn of the unicorn,
  • Le Goût – Taste, showing the lady accepting sweetmeats from her maid,
  • L’Odorat – Smell, the lady makes a wreath of flowers while the monkey smells a dropped flower,
  • La Vue – Sight, the seated lady holds a mirror,
  • L’Ouïe – Hearing, the lady plays an organ while her maid pumps the bellows.

The tapestries had been stored at Boussac Castle damaged by dampness and by rats until they were discovered by the writer, Prosper Mérimée, in 1841. However, it was George Sand who brought them to the attention of the public in one of her novels, Jeanne. Since 1882, the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries have been on display at the Musée du Moyen-Âge in Paris, the Musée de Cluny, in their own magnificent exhibit room. Today we can enjoy many reproductions of each tapestry (see images) woven in France or Belgium, all lined and having a rod pocket for easy hanging.

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Medieval wall tapestries

Medieval wall tapestries – a history starting with the Bayeux Tapestry.

Around 500AD, when Rome could no longer contain the fierce Northern European, tribes, the Roman Empire was replaced by much smaller kingdoms. The thousand years which followed are known as the medieval period. Despite the collapse of Rome, the Catholic Church continued to be a powerful institution unifying all those kingdoms. The Church became the centre for learning during these times: in science, the arts, in medicine, as well as religious culture. The rich culture of this medieval period eventually paved the way for many of the ideas which would mark the start of the Renaissance.

Historians believe small scale tapestries were produced throughout medieval times across Europe. By the end of this period, tapestries adorned the walls of castles and churches throughout the kingdoms. Tapestries were not only used in a propagandist way, to narrate the stories of brave knights or to present Christian teachings but were practical, providing insulation and decoration for wealthy homes. Hand-stitched medieval tapestries were relatively coarse in comparison to those created on a loom. However, the tapestry weaving process did allow the production of complex imagery on a vast scale with some medieval tapestries produced in sets of several pieces. At this time a tapestry could sometimes be more than ten yards long and up to five yards wide, woven by small teams, perhaps a father and his sons. It was a laborious process.

Unfortunately, few tapestries managed to survive the wars in these centuries. However, one of the most famous medieval wall tapestries ever created did survive: The Bayeux Tapestry (Tapisserie de Bayeux). Completed in 1076, this “tapestry” (actually an embroidery) depicts and records the events which led up to the invasion of England in 1066, the Norman Conquest (see above image). Originally hung in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy, today the Bayeux Tapestry is displayed at a dedicated museum in Bayeux, seventy metes long although only fifty centimetres high.

Medieval Tapestries were enriched with metal and silk threads producing ostentatious displays for both the Church and the aristocracy. Early in the fourteenth century, a substantial industry evolved for the production of high quality tapestries. This new surge of tapestry production was assisted by the abundance of skilled weavers and the support of many local guilds who actively encouraged large scale tapestry production. This was especially true in Northern France and the southern regions of the Netherlands. During the Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, Paris was considered the most influential producer of tapestries in Europe although many weavers left France for Holland and Belgium during the unrest.

The 1400’s marked the beginning of the Renaissance in Europe, a period which would 14th century tapestries - the historical context in artbegin and end at different times for different countries. It marked a renewed interest in learning and brought about a definitive change in the design of tapestries, especially notable in the first half of the fifteenth century. More emphasis was placed upon the line and pattern of the tapestry narrative, rather than its volume. This can be seen in the difference between the Apocalypse Tapestries at Angers woven in about 1380 and the Lady with the Unicorn series, now at the Cluny Museum, woven over one hundred years later. Incidentally, the Musée de Cluny in Paris, now called the Musée national du Moyen Âge, is the best place to view medieval art spanning the centuries.

Mille fleur tapestries (thousand flowers) often featured local nobility who had commissioned these pieces, such as grapes harvest scenes and La tenture de la Vie Seigneuriale series including The Promenade tapestry. By the middle of the fifteenth century, a significant number of tapestry workshops, mainly based in Northern France, were exporting tapestries throughout the European countries. Today, we can step back in time and enjoy medieval wall art in our own homes, including excerpts from the famous Bayeux Tapestry. The medieval period was an epic time of knights, gallantry, myths and legends – beautifully complex, colourful scenes which reflect the period’s rich history, and thus today reproductions of these medieval wall tapestries make a wonderful addition to any home.

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The Unicorn Tapestries

The Unicorn Tapestries are among the most significant medieval tapestries ever created.

The Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries, as they are sometimes called, are a truly awe-inspiring series of medieval tapestry art. It has been long speculated as to why this set of seven Flemish wall tapestries was produced and what are its true meanings. Historical records suggest Anne of Brittany originally commissioned them in celebration of her betrothal to the French king, Charles VIII, with the weaving taking ten years, completed around 1505. Art historians from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York feel sure they would have been displayed together in their illustration of the complete story, the hunt of a somewhat elusive unicorn.

The Hunt Of the Unicorn tapestries are often referred to as simply The Unicorn Tapestries. This set should not be confused with a similar collection of tapestries known as The Lady and The Unicorn. La Dame à la Licorne, as they were originally known, is a set of six tapestries commissioned by Jean Le Viste, also toward the end of the fifteenth century, now displayed in Paris at the Musée de Cluny. Both series are heralded as medieval masterpieces.

The Unicorn Tapestries are owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and displayed at ‘The Metropolitan Cloisters’ gallery, a medieval style building overlooking the Hudson River. Germain Bazin, the former director of the Louvre Museum in Paris, once described this remarkable building as “the crowning achievement of American Museology”. The Metropolitan Museum originally acquired the building with funds donated by John D Rockefeller who also donated the tapestries to the museum in 1937. He had purchased the collection in 1922 from the La Rochefoucauld family of France, who previously owned them for hundreds of years, paying a million dollars for the collection.

The Unicorn Tapestries portray each stage of the hunt for the unicorn from the start of The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestriesthe hunt for this elusive creature, its pursuit and capture, its death and ultimately the resurrection of the Unicorn. The first of these tapestries, The Hunters enter the Woods (left) shows the beginning of the hunt with the seigneur and two noblemen placed to his left. Although the scene is portraying a certain similarity to any stag hunt of the day the men are not dressed for hunting nor riding. Instead they are attired in rich clothing and on foot. Only three keepers and four hounds are included. The first of the unicorn tapestries named ‘The Start of the Hunt’ is just over twelve feet long and fourteen feet high. Produced in the Southern Netherlands, all the tapestries have a woollen warp and were created using wool, silk, metallic and silver threads.

Both the first and last tapestries in the set are completely covered in a complex and accurate selection of flora. This greatly reflected the ‘Mille Fleurs’ tapestries which were very popular during the time. It was highly symbolic and depicted myths and legends with great detailing. The penultimate of the series depicts the unicorn being slain and its corpse transported on horseback to the lord and lady of the castle: ‘The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle’. During these times, it was believed that those who possessed the magic horn of the unicorn would be purified. In the final piece, The Unicorn in Captivity, the unicorn is resurrected, and despite being trapped by a fence and in chains, seems content in his ‘garden of paradise’. Pomegranate juice and seeds, resembling wounds, are symbolic of immortality and of Christ; the captured unicorn thus representing Christ resurrected. However, they could also be a reference to fertility and an abundance of children.

Today, several reproductions have been produced from the Metropolitan Cloisters tapestry gallery by French and Belgian tapestry weavers: The Hunters enter the Woods, The Unicorn is Found, and The Unicorn in Captivity.

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Verdure tapestries

A history of tapestry art with descriptions of verdure tapestries available today.

Tapestries were produced in Europe from around the twelfth century when, it is believed, the art of weaving was introduced from the East. Some small scale tapestries may have been produced during early medieval times. However, it was towards the end of this period, and throughout the Renaissance, when tapestry art production prospered. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, France and the Low Countries would create some of the finest tapestry art ever produced. After The Hundred Year War from 1337 to 1453, many weavers left France and moved northwards. Many tapestries were destroyed during this protracted war but afterwards a new period of learning and artistic development would begin.

The Renaissance marked an important revival of the arts, and major design changes came about for tapestries. By the second half of the fifteenth century many workshops, especially in Northern France and the Southern Netherlands, were exporting tapestry wall-hangings throughout Europe. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Brussels tapestry workshops began to dominate production. Once again, war would disrupt production, as weavers were forced to relocate. Later, toward the end of the sixteenth century, Paris, became the recognized European centre for tapestry weaving.

Verdure Tapestries

It is not entirely certain where verdure tapestries were first produced. However, it is known that by the sixteenth century, they had become a recognized tapestry art form. The word ‘verdure’ derives from the French word ‘vert’, meaning green. Initially, verdure tapestries were characterized by their green tones, complex foliage and flower motifs – such as the Aristoloches wall tapestry (left). Forests and woodlands were typical scenes. As their popularity rose more expansive, and expensive, designs incorporating wildlife were woven. It is these more elaborate designs that we most often associate with the verdure style today. For centuries verdure tapestries remained highly popular and were made on a large scale for export. That was, until the arrival of wallpaper, which served as a more economical way to decorate a room.

In recent years verdure tapestries have seen a revival. These can change a room by creating a striking and impressive focal point, something which cannot be matched by wallpaper alone. The subtle earthy tones of this form of wall art can deliver that, whilst also being compatible with almost any style of décor (see above). Today, these tapestries are produced by respected weavers in France, Belgium and Italy, in a range of sizes so we can enjoy their aesthetic beauty virtually anywhere..

There is a good selection of themes to choose from: forests and lakes, flora and fauna, plus wonderful images of French châteaux, hunting tapestries, classic gardens and scenic landscapes. Quite a number are available in matching pairs. The lush greenery depicted in verdure tapestries, along with the idyllic scenery cannot help but create a beautifully harmonious room; peaceful, yet unobtrusive imagery which will complement and add to the ambience of your home. Further, a wall tapestry is an investment that will be there for generations to come.

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Baroque tapestries

Baroque tapestries include many splendid series of Louis XIV chateaux masterpieces of Louis XIV woven in France, tracing their history back over centuries.

Scenery and landscapes have always been highly popular subjects for Tapestry Art. The Romans, Greeks and, later, the rulers of medieval Europe would sometimes commission a tapestry to record great battles and other important events. The famous ‘Odyssey’ written by the Greek, Homer, in 800BC was translated into tapestry art thus making his stories accessible to all the ancient Greeks, not just those who could read. Tapestries were created in ancient Egypt (there is a drawing of a tapestry loom in one of the pyramids) and by the Inca tribes.

Louis XIV chateaux tapestries

Landscape tapestries provide a pleasing play of colour and light with their three-dimensional perspective and depth. For those who love the grandeur of castles, reproductions of a famous series of chateaux tapestries like the “Tenture de Maisons Royals” might be considered. These ‘Tapestries of the Royal Households’, the Royal Residences, were originally commissioned by Louis XIV circa 1670. Originally a set of twelve tapestries, each tapestry represented a month of the year with each depicting a different French royal chateaux. I remember visiting the Chateau of Blois which had some of these large tapestries hanging dramatically from floor to ceiling along a hall.

Tapestries of the Royal Households - The Royal ResidencesThese were designed by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the ‘Premier Paintre du Roi’ of Louis XIV, ie Louis’ court painter. They include the ever-popular Royal Palace tapestry, also called Verdure au Chateau tapestry: a good example of the baroque tapestries typically associated with the flamboyant reign of the Sun King.

Another piece from this same Royal Residences of Louis XIV tapestries set is ‘Château Bellevue’, again with a deep, elaborate border framing the tapestry with its view from a balcony. These all reflect the highly detailed and elaborate tone of French tapestry art during the seventeenth century.

Today’s wide range of classical reproductions often have their roots based in historical masterpieces. Now, artists are not limited to producing tapestries to satisfy the requirements of the rich aristocrats who once commissioned them. Thanks to modern technology, producing a tapestry is less labour intensive, making Baroque tapestries and all other styles affordable for everyone. They are a popular modern day choice for the home with their beauty, warmth and tactile qualities.

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Francois Boucher wall tapestries – in pursuit of the idyll

Francois Boucher wall tapestries of the Louis XV period – Gobelins tapestry art celebrating the sensual Rococo style.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries are as respected today as they were during the Renaissance. This remarkable French tapestry artist and painter began his career engraving the works of Antoine Watteau. The son of a lace designer and Parisian painter he won the ‘Grand Prix de Rome’, a scholarship created during the reign of Louis XIV, which enabled him to spend four years studying at the Academy of France in Rome. During this time he was free to indulge his infatuation with the sensuality and frivolity of Rococo painting. After his return to Paris, Boucher was admitted to the prestigious Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. In 1765 he was appointed by the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour, to became Court Painter to the King.

Francois Boucher (1703-1770) loved to focus on women and mythological themes, his paintings and tapestries being considered quite erotic for those times. Although he is considered to be one of the most influential tapestry artists in history, especially with regards to figure tapestries, his academic training enabled him to master many styles and techniques.

From 1755 until 1770 Francois Boucher was art director of the Manufacture Des Gobelins in Paris, a tapestry manufacturer established by Louis XIV famed for producing tapestries for the French kings. Today ‘Gobelins’ is run by the French Ministry of Culture and it hand-weaves contemporary tapestry art for the country’s government institutions. (My wife and I have taken the fascinating tour there.) Many of Gobelin’s most impressive tapestries were created by Boucher and Maurice Jacques. They produced a famous series of wool and silk tapestries, over four metres high and almost four metres wide. Serenade Rouge is just one tapestry of this set of four which adorned the chambers of the Duchess of Bourbon. The tapestries were sold during the Revolution.

His Noble Pastorale tapestries were woven several times at Beauvais after he was apppointed Director. This set of six large idealized pastoral scenes show him in pursuit of the idyll; Rococo shepherds and shepherdesses rather remarkably dressed in silk. We have numerous smaller details from this series available today, such as the top image.

The Triumph of Flora tapestry - Francois Boucher wall tapestriesTapestries like Serenade Rouge with decorative surrounds first appeared during the eighteenth century. But it was Boucher and Jacques who brought this tapestry style to its peak of popularity. Most tapestries before this period depicted historical events, religion and mythology. During the eighteenth century people sought tapestries with less sombre subjects and were looking for a more light-hearted and decorative styling. They were feminine and elegant; their style was unique in that these tapestries sought to imitate a variety of decorative techniques. But they also reflect heavily on Trompe l’Oeil, a technique which had been used by many artists for centuries, a style which seeks to depict things realistically and in a three dimensional light. Combining various styles, along with a vivid use of colours, makes these tapestries a quintessential example of 18th century tapestry art.

Francois Boucher wall tapestries were admired for their romance and idyllic depiction. All his tapestry works, even landscapes, achieved the same three dimensional qualities so beautifully emphasised in the ‘Serenade Rouge’ tapestry. A Francois Boucher tapestry is no longer reserved for the boudoirs of the aristocracy, now we can all enjoy his fabulous creations in our own homes. If you appreciate the Rococo style, you will enjoy these Boucher tapestries.

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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.

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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

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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World maps tapestries

World maps tapestries – interesting tapestry wall decor that intrigues us

We have an inbuilt curiosity in the world around us. This curiosity drove the first man to the ends of the world, a world everyone previously believed to be flat. Later it would send others to the moon. As people learned more of the world around them, they sought a way to record their discoveries and to make future discoveries easier by creating maps. Tapestry maps add a new dimension to these ancient maps. Further, these wall tapestries add charm and beauty to a room and also provide a focal point for interesting conversation.

Conquering uncharted horizons has been an obsession of man since time began. Therefore, it seems only natural that even today, we find tapestry maps so appealing. The Egyptians, Babylonians and the Greeks had a fascination with geography that compelled them to create maps.

Ptolemy’s world map was well known throughout Western society during the second century and was based upon ‘Geographia’ a book he had written around fifty years before. A reproduction of his world map was eventually published in 1482. (The original maps have never been discovered.) His book contained longitude and latitude co-ordinates, references and other important geographical information with regards to the various continents of the ‘Old World’ that was used to reconstruct the original world map. The ‘Geographia’ only describes the European, Asian and African continents.

Many of these world maps tapestries feature mythical creatures and gods, as did the Willem Blaeus Planisfero map - interesting tapestry wall decorancient cartography, adding to their decoration and interest. A classic world tapestry map often features two globes showing both the ancient Eastern and Western worlds. This is seen in the Willem Blaeu Planisfero map (left) available today as an Italian tapestry wall-hanging. Others might reflect the style of one of the most famous world maps ever made, “Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula”, a map created in 1630 by Dutch cartographer Henricus Hondius.  When translated, this means ‘A Complete New Map of the Earth and the Oceans’. It has been reproduced today as a French wall tapestry.

The most popular old map woven as a tapestry is Orbis Terrae Compendiosa Descriptio (“A Brief Representation of the World”) seen above. It is admirably woven in Belgium in a rich full weave.

These world maps tapestries make a wonderful focal point for today’s wall decor as collectable works of art – intriguing examples of what can be achieved when both the arts and science combine.

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