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 begin 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.