The story of the tapestry begins in 1064.
The wall tapestry is in reality a hand embroidery
on linen cloth using wools of various colors. The
tapestry was 70 meters long and 1/2 meters high, and
was most probably hand woven in an Anglo-Saxon workshop
supervised by Odeon de Conteville, Bishop of Bayeux
and half brother of William the Conqueror.
tapestry, portion of the tapestry depicting Harold's
last meal on land before embarking to Normandy
to inform William that it is Edward the Confessor's
wish that William succeed to the throne of England.
During this period, the wall tapestry was
characterized by extreme awkwardness in design, proportion,
perspective and detail. The designs translated into
the medium of tapestry appear quite primitive and
childlike, especially when compared to the tapestry
masterpieces of the 16th, 17th & 18th Centuries.
Les Mois de L'annee - a surviving fragment
of a late 12th Century tapestry from Baldishol Church
in Norway is a wonderful example of awkwardness of
transposition of 12th Century design into tapestry
and is one of the oldest surviving tapestries in the
The use of tapestry wall hangings at this time was
more for practicality than that of artistic, decorative
or commemorative value. Kings and Lords traveling
from one castle to another were fond of tapestries,
for when rolled up, the tapestries could be easily
carried and hung on the walls of various residences,
for protection from the cold and noise in the large
rooms, most of which were damp and noisy as the windows
were without glass and the floors were paved with
flagstone. Canopy beds originated from the custom
whereby tapestries would form small comfortable areas
within a room amidst the coldness of stone, and in
which it was possible to sleep in warmth. When a guest
would arrive, usually in a common hall, the Lord's
room was immediately "dressed" - a canopy for
his bed was arranged and cross-walls of wall tapestry
placed north or south to protect against cold in winter
or warmth in summer. Very few tapestries from the
13th century survive today. When the Lords moved into
a new castle they would not hesitate to have a wall
tapestry cut so as to facilitate a door opening. Whenever
the ceiling of a room was too low to hang the wall
tapestry at full length, the bottom of the tapestry
would be cut off, which was kept and then sewn onto
another wall tapestry found too small - even if the
theme and colors were different. Such tapestries,
a small number which survive today, still continue
to puzzle historians.
Up until the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), France
was the most important producer of tapestries.
Although wall tapestry design had improved from the
extreme awkwardness of the 12th Century, the movement,
proportion, perspective and composition of tapestries
were still cumbersome resulting in a bulky wall tapestry.
et embarquement: Origins of this tapestry are
The tapestry is on display in the Cluny Museum, Paris.
Towards the end of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453),
the pillaging of Arras in 1447 by Louis XI sent the
tapestry manufacturers toward Flanders which became
the tapestry centre. The tapestry craftsmen, working
in family concerns whose manufacturing skills were
passed down from father to son, had to possess skills
not only of weavers but also of dyers, the two skills
being interrelated, and a knowledge of which was necessary
in order to bring a successful conclusion to the tapestry.
Their secret lay in their skillfulness in extracting
colors from various plants and incorporating them
into the wool. This method gave them a palate of only
12 colors from which to work, (modern computer screens
have 16 million colors). Materials used in the weaving
of the tapestries were Arras thread, (aka Picardy
wool), Italian silk and silver and gold threads from
Cyprus. Tapestry manufacture was slow, taking a skilled
worker about two months to weave a square foot (approx.
30cm sq.). Many large tapestries were a group effort,
each worker having his own particular portion of the
tapestry to weave which would be joined together at
a later date. This lead to the weave having different
tensions and techniques within the one tapestry -
some portions of the tapestry more taut than others.
The tapestry makers wove biblical scenes and at a
later date, scenes from mythology; taking their inspiration
from the translations of Greek and Latin texts. The
lives of saints were widely represented and the background
was either a temple, palace or simply a solid co lour.
The costumes were seldom of the era depicted in the
scene, more often borrowed from colorful biblical
illustrations. These picturesque anachronisms gave
a particular charm to the tapestries of the 15th Century,
also known as Gothic and later as Flemish Gothic tapestries.
The composition of the tapestries depicted an awkwardness
in perspective and landscape backgrounds. It was to
be the next Century before the genius of a Raphael
was to bring tapestry to the true art of composition.
The purchaser of the tapestry usually dictated the
subject, size, number of pieces, themes, subject manner
and attitudes. Working in close collaboration with
the tapestry worker was a painter who created the
preliminary designs or paintings, within the restriction
of the palette of colors of the threads available
to the tapestry weavers.
et les viellards - (Marmattan Museum, Paris) is
a fine example of a biblical scene.
Mid-Late 15th CENTURY
Towards the end of the 15th Century, continuing into
the early 16th Century, the Loire Valley (Southeast
France) became a popular place for tapestry makers
as it was the favored area of the French Aristocracy
for their rural retreats. Rural scenes with freshness
and charm, where gentle ladies, lords and peasant
folk are depicted on a flowery or "mille fleur" (thousand
flower) background of the Loire Valley. The garments
of the people depicted in the tapestries were seldom
in accord with history and time, often imitating the
court garments that were fashionable at the time.
The subjects were adorned with gold and their garments
were trimmed with exquisite fabrics and furs, even
the peasants appear like aristocracy. As most documents
concerning tapestries for the 14th - 16th Centuries
no longer exist, experts generally refer to the costumes
of the subjects to establish the date of execution.
At the end of the middle ages, epic subjects became
popular. Tapestries illustrated kings and princes
in tournament, combat scenes and hunting parties.
This period remains the most prolific for unrivalled
At the time of the Italian wars, and with the Renaissance
and the arrival of the Italian artists, tapestry radically
changed style. Rich borders and arabesques characterized
the highly colored style of the Renaissance period.
After the Italian wars, the Renaissance radically
changed the art of tapestry making. The new aesthetic
form was an association of painting and tapestry.
Around 1530, Francis I founded the first Royal tapestry
workshop at Fontainbleau in France. The great Italian
artist, Le Primatice, was the chief painter and director.
WEAVING TECHNIQUE OF THE 16TH
CENTURY - THE RAPHAEL CARTOONS: Associating painting
with tapestry Raphael introduced the art of composition,
order, clarity, perspective and light, and his work
was translated into a series of ten very famous tapestries,
known as the Acts of the Apostles, for the Sistine
Chapel in the Vatican, Rome. The primary purpose of
the paintings produced by Raphael was to be used as
templates (or blueprints) by weavers for producing
the tapestries and this is why they are known as "cartoons".
The Raphael cartoons have become as famous as the
tapestries themselves. Raphael was commissioned in
1515 by the Medici Pope, Leo X (1513-21) to produce
the works and are the oldest surviving cartoons on
paper. In 1517 Raphael's cartoons were sent to Brussels
for weaving in the workshops of Peter Van Aelst, and
were finished around 1521. The tapestries were woven
on a low - warp loom (or basse-lisse technique) whereby
the cartoons were cut into strips by the weavers and
placed beneath the warp (vertical) threads of the
loom, following the design with the colored threads
of the weft (left to right). The width of the strips
was limited by both the size of the loom and by the
arm-span of the weavers; several weavers working side
by side, with their cartoon strip placed next to their
colleagues. The weavers worked on the back of the
tapestry, producing a mirror image of the cartoon,
which therefore had to be designed in reverse. Many
of the cartoons by celebrated artists were later re-joined
and have become valuable artifacts in their own right.
Medieval - this tapestry is of the style that
links between the
Middle Ages and the Renaissance and reflects the manner
of life of the period.
The tapestry is a masterpeice of high quality weaving
of the 16th Century.
Around 1660, Colbert founded the Royal Factory at
the Gobelins, under the name Royal Workshop of Crown
Furniture and renamed to Beauvais in 1664, under the
protection of Louis XIV. By 1675, more than 800 painters
and tapestry makers could be seen at the Gobelins
in Paris, under the brilliant direction of Charles
Le Brun, whose idea was to group the artists according
to their various talents. Le Brun had each artist
specialize in that for which he had an affinity and
gift. This is why it is not unusual to find cartoons
signed by several artists. In this century, the perfection
of the tapestry weavers had reached it's pinnacle,
the stitch had reached a maturity never before attained.
The inventory of the kings furniture, at the death
of Louis XIV, contained no less than 2155 Gobelins
tapestries, woven under the auspicious direction of
Charles Le Brun.
Verdure des Flandres. Woven in Brussels (17th
hangs in the Museum of Art and Decoration in Paris.
This is a work of outstanding quality, both by it's
perspective and the luxuriance of it's foliage.
After the death of Louis XIV, ( 1638-1715), the formal
subjects gave way to more imaginative compositions.
Tapestry weaving became more romantic with beautiful
landscapes - this style reaching it's peak with Boucher
and endured during the entire reign of Louis XV. During
this time tapestries depicted sensuality, provocative
nudes, voluptuousness - all set in charming landscapes,
where fallen gods and erotic nymphs dance.
Mid-Late 18th CENTURY
Tapestry techniques became greatly modified, the composition
more mannered and the themes more stylish and elegant.
The leading painters of the day continued to compose
tapestries as if they were paintings and gone was
the practicality of useful function as in the middle
ages - tapestries were now strictly for aesthetic
and decorative values. J.B Leprince, a student of
Boucher, was one of the most well known painters at
the start of the 18th Century. He created a new kind
of exoticism based on the northern countries. With
the Russian Games, six works at the Musee de l'ancien
Archeveche in Aix-en-Provence, he introduced for the
first time to French Decoration, the people, costumes
and picturesque aspects of Russian life.
to Cybele, is reproduced from a painting
by Jaan Breughal,
depicting nymphs and peasants making offerings of
fruit, flowers and crops
as gestures of thanksgiving to Cybele, the godness
JACQUARD LOOM: In 1757 Jacques
de Vaucanson developed a low warp loom (basse-lisse)
that was improved by Joseph Maree Jacquard (1752-1834).
This loom was to be the pre-curser of the technique
used in the Jacquard looms of today, and increased
the speed at which tapestries could be reproduced.
Weft yarns of different colours are woven from the
back of the fabric, to the face of the tapestry to
form the design, the purpose of which was to imitate
hand woven tapestry. Today, many forms of jacquard
weave of varying qualities are incorporated in the
manufacture of jacquard tapestries, their names usually
derived from the place of manufacture,eg. Halluin,
Gobelin, Louvieres, and Loiselles.
FRENCH REVOLUTION: At the end of the French
Revolution, artistic inspiration was abandoned. The
Royal Workshops became government institutions managed
by civil servants and the group of foreign artists
painfully assembled under le Brun was broken up. Vandalism
reigned everywhere - pillaging and destruction of
some of the most beautiful tapestries were burned
in order to extract the small amount of gold and silver
used in their weaving eg. "The Chariot of Triumph
Tapestry" (the first tapestry depicted under "Hand
Woven - Aubusson" on this web site). Others were used
as wind-breaks for vineyards or shelter for street
peasants and refugees. The First Empire and reign
of Napoleon I brought the final downfall of the art
of tapestry and no masterpiece was to emerge from
this confused era. Beauvais, Aubusson and Fellitin
reopened in 1795 and specialized in upholstering chairs.
They limited themselves by reproducing tapestries
from the old designs of the great artists of the 17th
& 18th Centuries, reproducing tapestries in their
thousands until the 19th Century.
19 & 20th CENTURIES
Tapestry design and manufacture had once again become
the subject of popular decorative taste and many styles
emerged during this era. The Elephant tapestry, although
first appearing in the mid 19th Century, once again
finds popularity at the close of the 20th Century.