History of tapestries
Tapestries were originally most popular in medieval Europe in the period from about 1300-1600. As a means to display their wealth and power, it was the nobility and the clergy who could afford to commission large sets of tapestries, in some cases up to 10 panels in a set.
In addition to being a manifestation of power, tapestries hanging in churches and cathedrals as well as castles and houses of noble families were also used to insulate the old draughty buildings, particularly in winter months.
Tapestries were made out of a range of different materials but the primary textile would have been wool, but to display their wealth, those commissioning the tapestries could have had silk and gilt metalic threads (silver and gold) woven into the patterns alongside the wool. Better quality wool would provide the best insulation, but to add in luxury threads could only be afforded by the most opulent kings. Henry VIII, for example, owned a total of about 2,700 tapestries across his various palaces and castles. This was considered to be one of the biggest collections in Europe.
Additionally, wealth could be demonstrated by the size of the sets of tapestries commissioned, the more in the set, the more wealth or power was being demonstrated; or perhaps someone who was keen to curry favour with a monarch and therefore willing to make a display of wealth would order a bigger set. It wasn’t uncommon for sets of up to 10 panels to be made.
As the popularity in tapestries grew in the 15th Century, a localised industry grew up around Northern France and the Southern Netherlands, receiving commissions and seeing their tapestries being distributed throughout Europe.
The tapestries would also form themes – stories told through the series, such as the Hunt of the Unicorn reproductions I saw at Stirling Castle or The Lady and the Unicorn on display at the Cluny Museum in Paris. Hunting was also a popular theme, but the Devonshire Tapestries that I talk about later are the only medieval hunting tapestries still in existence. As tapestries were regularly transported between houses/castles on progresses, its not surprising that so many tapestries have been lost over time.
Medieval Court Life
Royal Courts in the Middle Ages would move about the country, particularly in the summer months, moving between Castles and Country House Estates owned by nobility and members of the Court. These travels were called progresses.
In the summer it was easier to move around as road conditions would be more conducive to travel. In the winter road conditions were worse, so it was more difficult to travel and therefore the courts tended to make shorter journeys. The Courst would make small hops between houses and at the same time, these houses would all be furnished already. It was only with the summer progresses, that they needed to take furniture, silverware and tapestries etc with them for each castle/house. It would not be uncommon for the progresses to comprise 600-800 people (courtiers and household staff) moving about.
Its also possible that progresses occurred to avoid outbreaks of illness and disease, and to allow members of the household staying behind to thoroughly clean the houses once they were empty.
When we go on holiday, or to visit another house, we take clothes, toiletries and maybe some food with us. However, the medieval household would pack up and transport most of the household with them to each location.
There are about 4 or 5 tapestries that are considered to be the most important or most famous surviving examples from the Middle Ages, so I’m going to share a bit about each of these. While I’ve personally not seen them all, I hope you’ll enjoy sharing them with me today.
In addition, there are two more modern tapestries that are being included in the review of tapestries as they have been inspired by 2 of the Medieval original sets.
The five medieval tapestries I’m going to include are:
- The Hunt of the Unicorn
- The Lady and the Unicorn/La Dame et la Lincorne
- The Bayeux Tapestries
- La Tapisseries de l’Apocolypse/The Apocolypse Tapestry
- The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries
The 2 modern tapestries that I’m also going to cover are:
- The Stirling Palace Tapestries
- Le Chant du Monde
The Unicorn Tapestries/The Hunt of the Unicorn
This set of 7 tapestries from the 16th Century were made in Paris and is currently housed in the Met Cloisters Museum in New York. It is believed that although they are displayed as a set of 7 tapestries, they are likely to have originally been part of 2 separate sets.
There are two possible stories/allegories attached to these tapestries. The unicorn is a wild (albeit mythical beast) which cannot be killed and can only be tamed by a King or by a virgin maiden.
One story is that the Unicorn is a representation of Christ and the stages of the Hunt depicted in the tapestries indicate the Last Supper, the betrayal of Christ, his crucifiction and his ressurection.
The other possible story is one of courtly love, that the unicorn (the lover) is tamed by the maiden.
The Stirling Palace Tapestries
Stirling Castle houses a modern reproduction of the Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries (The Stirling Palace Tapestries) which were created between 2002-2015. These are on display in the Royal Palace within Stirling Castle, and can be seen on my post about unicorns.
When the Royal Palace of James V was being renovated, inventories dating from the reign of James V show a collection of over 100 tapestries, including in 1578, two sets of unicorn tapestries. One of these bore the title “l’histoire de la lincorne”. When carrying out the renovations of the Palace Historic Scotland wished to reproduce the tapestries from the Hunt of the Unicorn in New York. The Stirling Palace Tapestries are 10% smaller than the original tapestries.
La Dame et la Lincorn/The Lady and the Unicorn
This is a set of 6 tapestries from 1484-1500. They were designed in Paris and woven in Flanders. They are described as “one of the greatest European works of Art of the Middle Ages”. The tapestries can be seen at the Musee de Cluny in Paris.
5 of the tapestries are accepted as representing our five senses (Taste, Touch, Sound, Smell and Sight) and the sixth tapestry represents love/desire. The necklace in the sixth is thought by some to symbolise desire.
Brenda’s Curiosity: These tapestries also feature in the Harry Potter Films, in the Gryffindor Common Room.
The Apocolypse Tapestry
This Tapestry is in Angers in the Loire Valley (Maine et Loire) and is currently on display in the Chateau D’Angers. Commissioned by Louis I, Duke d’Anjou and was made between 1377-1382. As the name suggests, the tapestries depict the Apocolypse as described in the Book of Revelations from the Bible. The set comprises 6 panels.
Le Chant du Monde (The song of the world)
Jean Lurcat designed Le Chant du Monde between 1957-1966. The tapestries, a set of 10, have hung in the Musee de Jean Lurcat since 1968 and is a modern tribute to the Apocolypse Tapestry. The Musee de Jean Lurcat is also located in Angers.
I’d forgotten just how impressive these tapestries were until I came across them again while doing research for this piece, and now I want a return visit to Angers.
The Bayeux Tapestries
These tapestries were created in the 11th Century (1051-1099) and although they’re called tapestries, they are embroidered with wool onto linen cloth rather than woven. The tapestry is 231 feet long and only 19.5 inches wide.
The Bayeux Tapestry tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England (from the point of view of the French Normans). The story is told over a total of 58 scenes. It was originally commissioned for the Cathedral of Bayeux, but it is now housed in the Musee de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries
These are English tapestries from 1430-50 and are a set of 4 very large tapestries compared to the others. They depict men and women in Court dress from the 15th Century out hunting forest animals. These are the only surviving 15th century hunting tapestries in existence.
The tapestries got their name as they belonged to the Devonshire Family and were displayed originally in their ancestral home of Chatsworth House for over 500 years. More recently they had been housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London however in 2021 it was reported that two of the tapestries were being returned to Chatsworth House, which has now happened.
Campbell, Thomas P. “European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/taps/hd_taps.htm (October 2002)
Historic Scotland, 2022, The Stirling Palace Tapestries, Edinburgh, Historic Environment Scotland
Mezoff, Rebecca: 2019: France Tapestry Tour, Episode 6: Angers and Lurcat: https://rebeccamezoff.com/blog/2019/6/9/france-tapestry-tour-episode-6-angers-and-lurcat: accessed 22nd April, 2023
Taggart, Emma: 2021: 5 famous historical tapestries that weave detailed stories in thread: My Modern Met: https://mymodernmet.com/famous-tapestries/: accessed 22nd April, 2023
Thurley, Professor Simon, CBE; 2022; Progress: Royal Courts on the move in Tudor and Stuart England; Gresham College, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/watch-now/royal-progresses; accessed 22nd April, 2023
I hope you’ve enjoyed my little tour of medieval tapestries. Have you seen any of these tapestries? Have you seen others? Which ones would you like to see? Have you noticed the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in the Harry Potter films?
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