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Tapestries Gothic

( Originally Published 1930 )



THE story of tapestries follows the story of art, for artists have ever furnished the designs for the weavers. It has many another story woven into its texture and these all have to do with men and women whose lives even in retrospect are vivid and important.

The art of tapestry reached three great developments. The first we call Gothic, the second Renaissance, the third Gobelins or Eighteenth Century. This neat condensation of terms requires amplifying, for the words themselves are misleading. Gothic has nothing to do with the Goths—a savage people who harried Europe in the early Middle Ages. And Gobelins is used in-discriminately for all tapestries of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, wherever woven, by those who are more careless than specific.

To make the story hold together and to make it rich with human interest, we follow the art with profitable respect to chronology. As ever when the inception of an art is sought, the mind and imagination have to fly nimbly back over the centuries to pick up half-forgotten facts and romance.

Beginning with the weave itself, we are balked in our investigations backwards by finding it to be pre-historic. More interesting it is to take up the subject at a date where documents are plenty, that is in the countries and centuries when mankind in Europe developed luxury and decoration beyond the needs of primitive people.

The weave is primarily the simple one of a warp crossed by a weft thrown under and over, with unvarying regularity, the weft threads being pushed down into place with a sort of comb to cover completely the warp. The great difference between this fabric and a plain cloth is that the shuttles are many, each carrying a different color and rarely fly all across the loom, but each is stopped at will and its direction reversed when desired. This simple expedient, with the multiplication of the shuttles or bobbins which carry the weft, makes the fabric we call tapestry.

Even the word tapestry is capable of many definitions, but we use it to denote the hand-woven pictured cloths. Indeed to those who love old tapestries there is revolt in the heart when some shopman shows wall-paper or goods by the yard under the name of tapestry. The French have a way of calling all tapestries Gobelins, even those made hundreds of years before the Gobelins Factory was founded. And that too might confuse a novice in studying or buying.

The weave is the same as that employed by the Egyptians and Copts, Second to Seventh Centuries, and of which we have such fascinating remains in our great collections. Almost all of those remains are concerned with garments, and are but trimmings so to speak, but of late much larger fragments have been found which appear to be parts of hangings or couch covers, and these in design are startlingly like sections of foliage from the great Flemish tapestries of the early Fourteen Hundreds. They are not flat leaf patterns, but have the three-dimensional quality to such a degree that they seem ready to flutter at the lightest stirring of a breeze. In color they are like the richest tints of autumn. One wonders how a weaver in warm North Egypt could picture the glowing October foliage of Canadian forests.

Another wonder are the tapestries from ancient Peru, many of which were woven contemporaneously with the Coptic. Some were woven before the conquest of the aborigines by the Incas, and some after, but the weave is ever the same. Indeed, pictured cloths could not have been made with any other weave, for the intricacies of method allow the greatest liberty of portrayal.

Slight evidences of tapestry weave are shown wherever ancient fabrics have been preserved, but as time has destroyed all except those which have lain buried in dry desert countries, we have an insufficient amount to create interest except in the breast of the archeologist. Therefore let us pick up the art in Europe in the century before the Renaissance, and for convenience' sake we will call it Gothic.

It takes us to the North, to Belgium then called Flanders. It seems as though this country had for years been preparing for the art and for the ability to produce the prodigious quantity of tapestries she was called upon to supply to the world as soon as her great art became known. Flanders was the wool-producing country of the world. England under Elizabeth was her rival, but prior to that Flanders was pre-eminent. Her weavers were the most able, their goods the best. Partly this was because of the system of guilds that not only united weavers in a common interest but that gave them the highest ideals in quality of work.

The guild was made of master-workmen who owned their own shop, made and sold their own goods. Under them were the apprentices who must work many years and become superlatively proficient before they might themselves become master-workmen. These apprentice lads and men, however gay a group they may look in pictures and on the operatic stage, must have felt that servitude was long when independence was not obtained under fifteen years of service. They were kept back thus long to prevent too many shops with a consequent glut of goods on the market.

It was the business of the cloth makers' guild in Flanders to see that high standards were maintained, that dyes were unfadable and pleasing to the eye, that yarn was evenly spun, even that the proper sort of sheep were grazing on the low-lands, the sheep that provided the wool.

There was never a big town that did not have as its two most important buildings the cathedral and the cloth-house. And almost as much labor and taste was expended on one as on the other. Cloth-making and religion seem to have been the two great interests of the people.

Tapestries came because they were needed. They were not merely a new manner for the expression of artists. They were needed primarily to make home a comfortable retreat. In those days houses were not warm nests of paneled walls and central heating. They were stone inside as well as out, and heated no more than an open fire can heat, with not too many fires at that. The winter wind whistled insinuatingly over the shoulders of those who sat beside the wall, and whined through the cracks of doors as it blew fresh from snowy reaches onto man as he reclined in hours of ease.

Some warm and cozy protector was needed, so the big hanging tapestry was invented. Probably cloth was tried at first, but even if it mitigated the icy blast its dark dye dressed the rooms with gloom and with monotony. Something of gay color, of pictorial interest, was desired, demanded. And so the ancient weave was called to help, artists drew pictures or cartoons to copy, looms of huge size were constructed, and with enormous courage the weavers inaugurated an art whose future importance they could not possibly imagine.

Flanders throughout the tapestry weaving centuries had a marvelously varied history. At the inception of this new industry she was at peace. Her earlier history was concerned with Charlemagne whose name appears in the annals of all states. When his great Empire was dismembered in 843, Flanders was set apart to form a buffer state that should keep France and Germany apart. But the rulers who most affected the art of tapestry weaving were the Dukes of Burgundy and Louis XI.

Appreciation of the hangings was immediate, and the first to receive them were the rulers in command. Tapestries came into a cold gray world and immediately there was warmth and beauty. Flowers bloomed, trees bore bright fruit on leafy branches, playful animals leaped about, and exquisite ladies hesitated in the greenwood as though in ecstasy at its loveliness. There are still left a few of these early tapestries, notably one of that fascinating Isabeau of Bavaria whose naughty history as a queen is so far away that one can relish it with propriety. It will be remembered that she was exceeding fair, that she wrecked every man who looked into her eyes, that she went to Paris for her marriage to Charles VI thus becoming Queen of France, and that she died in 1435. No wonder the artists made a tapestry cartoon of her, as she with three or four companions strayed through an enchanted wood rich with the foliage and the flowers of spring, neither of the men who walked with her in the wood being her husband the king. The elegant slenderness of the figures, the grace of the composition and its power to convert the beholder into a member of that sylvan party, make of it one of the loveliest of Gothic tapes-tries. Mr. Edson Bradley once lent it to the Metropolitan Museum for a year, thus giving transport of delight to the appreciative and causing anguish in the hearts of the envious. It belongs to the class of secular subjects, which were always treated with a loving touch, as though artist and weaver were within the realm of personal experiences on which it were happiness to dwell.

Subjects of the early tapestries sometimes reflect the thought of the day and include representations of events contemporary. Of these there are far too few, for wars, and classic and religious history were considered a more scholarly and dignified field. Religious subjects were paramount. This was but natural at a time when theatrical representations were limited to morality plays. Far from merry it must have been to repair to the playhouse of a winter's night to witness in a dim light the struggle of man against the dragon Vice, and the punishments of that same man when he lost the battle. Religion being his only help, the moral was drawn with heavy emphasis.

And thus it came that religious or morality subjects were oftenest on the loom in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries. Another reason for this is found in the art of painting. For long the monasteries had been the museums, the strongholds in which were deposited the treasures even of kings, when war was rampant. And for long the painter monks had been the most productive of the artists. That their work was in miniature lessens not its beauty of composition and of color.

Flanders contributed then her most famous artists, the Van Eycks and Hans Memling. Their work was but an enlargement of the monk's missal. It pre-served the spirit of the miniature although its scale was larger. And on their designs the early Flemish weavers depended for their best inspiration in religious subjects.

Just for the sake of being informed one must know of the fancy for depicting the Apocalypse and of the marvelous production under that head which hangs in the cathedral of Angers and to see which many a tourist—I had almost said pilgrim-takes a long journey. It was woven by Nicholas Bataille—in France—and is one of the great textiles of the world. Thus we touch on a place of weaving outside of Flanders, France of the Northern districts.

The Life of Christ, the Life of the Virgin, became enormously popular subjects as the weavers increased in numbers and in ability. The artist who drew the cartoon then invented a charming and ingenious method of including many scenes on one tapestry. There were made many sets of many pieces by order of great patrons, but often came a request for a single piece to hang in home or chapel, and on this both artist and weaver lavished the best of his talent.

The space of the cloth was divided into as many fields as were required, by means of architectural helps; slender columns supporting arches, thrust their up-right line between the scene of the Virgin's birth and the Visitation, between the Coronation and the Assumption, and all with beautiful regard to symmetry and scale. The various scenes were executed by the most talented of the weavers, those who were true artists, and much gold was introduced. For us who are concerned with all textiles, not tapestries alone, it is interesting to note the patterns of the robes in which all the important personages were dressed. Velvets and brocades are indicated just as they were coming into Venice from the Ottoman Empire, just as the looms of Genoa were newly weaving them.

These many-scened tapestries of the late Fifteenth Century reached perfection. Nothing has ever been executed in tapestry weaving so exquisite, so high in art. Not only have they the beauty of a painting, but they have an inherent power to hold the silent attention of their beholders until the spirit of religion that called them into existence seizes upon the spirit, and one falls into a mood of worship. The highest example of this variety of tapestry is one called after a former possessor, the great art connoisseur Cardinal Mazarin, he who helped to form the character of the young Louis XIV. It is said to have been woven in Arras for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Mr. Pierpont Morgan brought it to America and it now sheds its undying glory on the collection of Mr. Joseph Widener of Philadelphia. For several years by Mr. Morgan's generosity it hung in the Metropolitan Museum guarded by a Hollander who loved it as a child. Irrelevant it may be to mention such a circumstance, but is it not a proof of the undying power of the old tapestry weavers and their works to speak to man throughout the ages and even to men of our own time? The life of Moses, the lives of saints were all depicted at this time of perfect weaving, of perfect cooperation between artist, master-weaver, assistants and dyers.,

Gold thread was lavishly used to heighten effects. It is interesting to note that in these threads there is a connection between East and West. The manner of manufacture was to lay gold leaf on a thin animal membrane where it readily adhered, and to cut this in infinitely fine strips which were then wound on silk or linen threads for weaving. Gold of Cyprus was the name of this importation. It was of such value that when a hanging was ordered a separate contract or stipulation was made for the gold, according to the amount introduced into the weaving.

The French call millefleurs the charming tapestries of leaves and flowers and little animals that set a-tingling the emotions of any one who had a childhood in the big out of doors which is the kingdom of child-hood. Under the Burgundian Dukes many of these were woven, and the pretty habit continued until the next century—the Sixteenth. To distinguish the earliest regard the size of the leaves and fruit. They are nearly on the scale of nature, and resemble their prototype of certain generous Coptic weaving. Then they appear but scantily, peeping from behind a scene in the thorny aspect of a holly-bush or the mounting stem of a rose-tree, while overhead are the thrusting branches of trees rich with fruit. Among this naturalistic high-colored vegetation are personages of romance, and perhaps a peep of their distant towers.

Far smaller in scale and daintier are the millefleurs tapestries of the later years of the century. Sometimes these tapestries are solid fields of verdure without the interruption of human figures. It is as though a master weaver had taken a day off from his work at the loom and had thrown himself on the blossoming earth of early June, there to revel in the sights of the country round about Arras. All through the tapestry the hares are peeping and little dogs are smelling them out, while a fox or two runs wisely to cover among the leafage. It is not a scene, no personages distract the attention, it is simply a few square yards of nature. Such tapestries are not unlike the rugs of Persia woven at about that time.

In the Cluny Museum at Paris are the very loveliest possible tapestries of this variety. If one wishes to be transported backward through history and arrive at the enchantment of ancient times an hour may well be spent with them. I refer to the set called The Lady and the Unicorn—La Dame et la Licorne.

Usually the foundation color of the millefleurs tapestry of this order is of a deep green, almost black, which scarcely shows between the flowers of the field and wood, but this set at the Cluny has the rare distinction of being woven with a background of red, that tempered red of the old weavers, mellow but not self-assertive. This alone would mark it as a rarity, but it is in the composition of the scenes we see the skill of both cartoonist and weaver. A lady of high degree and her attendant maid of honor are the personages and accompanying them are two heraldic animals, a lion and a unicorn upholding banners. There are accessories in each scene—in one a harp, in another a falcon, indicating music and the sport of the aristocrat. But it is the power to excite the imagination that is the chief charm of the tapestries of this superlative set.

They illustrate another matter also, that the looms of Arras were not alone in their production of ideal tapes-tries, for these were woven in France. Through their perfection of weave and beauty of design they suggest that France was more able than Arras at least in this particular type of tapestry. But a few years later the looms of Flanders produced hangings of another style which have never been surpassed in workmanship or designs.

While considering the subjects for the cartoons—the cartoon being the artist's drawing which it was the weaver's work to translate into wool and silk and metal—one sees in the battle scenes a sign of the times. Peace was ever of short duration in Flanders. There was war with England, there were the struggles of the Dukes of Burgundy for domination, and their rule from about 1400 to 1477, and after that the seizure of Arras by the tyrant Louis XI. Besides the conflicts consequent upon this there were the Crusades in which Flanders took part.

The Dukes of Burgundy almost rivaled the Kings of France in power and in the size of the territory over which they reigned. The nobles of France were rightly feared by the king, they were not mere courtiers led by him. The Duke of Burgundy called Philip the Hardy was the first to govern Flanders. He being the son of that King of France called John the Good had perhaps the right of royalty to step in. It was he who arranged peace with the English who were then in power in Flanders, and it was he who patronized with enthusiasm the industrial art of tapestry weaving. This was about 1400 A.D. The Flemish were already heavy producers. It is recorded that this same Philip the Hardy made gifts of tapestries to the English who thus increased a knowledge of the art in England.

Philip was made Lord of the Comite of Artois which included the town of Arras.

John-without-Fear was the next of these vigorous swash-buckling Dukes of the Middle Ages, and it was his pleasure to command five battle scenes, some such large and complicated scene as that of the Sack of Jerusalem which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum.

Philip the Good governed next. It was he who lent of his tapestries to make gorgeous the streets and bridges of Paris for a royal progress through the city of the young King Louis XI. It was not so very many years later that this insanely cruel king laid plans to weaken Flanders and secure a part of it for himself. All these Burgundians in spite of the size of their possessions (which were almost as large as France, reaching to the east of that country from the Mediterranean to the English Channel) devoted themselves to the now famous industry peculiar to the Comite of Artois. They not only encouraged tapestry commerce with other nations, but laid up for themselves the most amazing lot of woven treasure. This same Philip the Good—they favored descriptive names in those days—owned so many hangings that he had built a storehouse for the safe-keeping of his collection. This was in 1429.

With Charles the Bold the end of the Burgundian rule over the Flemish weavers terminates. Like all the others of his line he gave his patronage to the great artistic industry, and also kept himself supplied. So ,great was his attachment to his tapestries that he took some about with him wherever he traveled to make more elegant his surroundings.

Louis XI was King. Looking with envy on the rich industrious population of Flanders he determined to conquer it for the aggrandizement of France. He man-aged by cunning attacks to weaken the country's resistance. When Charles the Bold was lured into battle with the Swiss, Louis XI found his opportunity. The Burgundian was routed and died miserably on the field. Louis XI then attached to himself Artois with its weaving town of Arras. Those who travel today in Berne and in Nancy can get the flavor of those old bellicose times in the Arras tapestries preserved in those towns, the very tapestries taken by Charles the Bold (le Temeraire) to ornament his tent on the field of battle.

Then came evil days for the Flemish weavers, or at least for those of Arras. Louis XI took Arras in 1477, just at the time of her greatest productiveness and skill. His mania was conquest and cruelty, not the arts. The weavers of Arras fled for their lives. Some went across the water to England, many went to France in the northern counties. As a tapestry center Arras was no more, for Artois then belonged to an eccentric French King.

It was at this time that Brussels in Brabant arose as a producer. From that time on until the decadence of about 155o she was the world's leader. But this is not to forget the tapestry-weaving of northern France. No great center arose there, but many tapestries were nevertheless produced, and these are distinguished by a delightful softness of the fabric, a tender yet honest scale of color, and a display of great individual talent in the design. It is only of late years that these have been separated from Flemish work, therefore many old attributions were mistaken. But now that our eyes are opened we are eager to make amends.

In the middle of the Fifteenth Century all the countries of Europe were interested in the tapestry productions of Flanders and each one established warehouses in Bruges and Ghent.



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