Tapestries in the Renaissance
( Originally Published 1930 )
THE charm of the very old tapestries depends on their sincerity and simplicity. They have the win-some qualities of naivete. The cartoons partake of the religious atmosphere of the monastic drawings. Their colors are limited to less than twenty, and the breches, or bobbins, carry only wool. Silk was not yet plentiful enough in Europe to be used in tapestry-weaving, and gold was a rarity—at least it is seldom found in the tapestries left to us.
But quite a different note was struck at the end of the Fifteenth Century. It is as though the makers of tapes-try had suddenly stepped from the nursery of their art into the world of wealth and sophistication.
Artists of the first rank drew the cartoon—one might say composed the picture, for what is a cartoon but a painting drawn with an emphasis on technique. The artists are those we know today by the works in our collectors' galleries, Van Eyck, David, Roger Van der Weyden, Bernard Van Orley. Flanders was finishing her period of Gothic painting with a brilliant development that was completely her own, and not imported.
When all the world was showing appreciation of Flemish tapestries, it was not surprising that artists of first rank should contribute their talent. But without the super-weaver the artist's designs were vain. In fact the weaver must himself be an artist. The translation of figures and particularly faces into woven fabric required more than mere manual skill, it involved the sensitive perception of one who was at heart an artist, although he painted no canvases.
The master-weaver, or tapissier, as he was called, executed such tapestries as the Mazarin hanging, where a more careless hand could have ruined the inspired faces of the central group. As such work consumed years of time, the master-weaver cleverly left unimportant areas to his pupils or apprentices. If the center of the field was occupied by an important group of personages, perhaps flanked by two others, these were al-ways the work of the master; but a little scene which filled a corner, or the frame of columns which separated the scenes, were given to the lesser men to weave.
Borders too were their especial province. In the earliest Gothic tapestries the border as such was unknown. In its place was a band of lettering at the top, or the suggestion of a wall at the sides, or of pavement or flower-bed at the base. But late in the Fifteenth Century the border was an accustomed finish to the best hangings. With fine instinct it kept to simple floral motives, and to a subservient width.
Subjects at this time of perfect weaving were very largely religious. Scenes from the life of saints were woven with what seems like religious devotion. Scenes from the life of the day were not the mode, but one can infer much from the details of the religious scenes. It often happened that a dress was true of the time although it draped the figure of an historic personage. These little anachronisms are an amusement in our eyes, not a fault.
Artists could not forever draw pictures of Christ's life, for the fashion of the day was to dwell on the least happy of His hours and days. So to find new subjects yet keep within the religious tradition they turned to the Old Testament and picked up there some tales containing secular interest. Sheba's queen surrounded by elegant wealth of drapery appears before Solomon in all his glory. Esther and Ahasuerus introduce us into royal elegance—Judith and Holofernes also. These biblical characters and their surrounding groups gave chance for displaying the elegance of court life. Incidentally all these men and women of sacred history were attired in the velvet brocades of the late Fifteenth Century. But that as we know detracts nothing from their beauty and adds a bit to humor. Much gold was woven into these matchless tapestries but with charming restraint. It glistens, it never glares; it lights a maiden's tresses or makes brilliant a queen's jewels or coronation robe, but it never reached the obvious display attained in cloth of gold.
Morality subjects extended through this period and reveled in such subjects as a portrayal of The Seven Deadly Sins, the Triumph of Virtue, and other warnings to feeble and tempted mankind. The classic myths of Greece and Rome also had a vogue.
There came a fashion in tapestries less beautiful than these we have been considering, but because so many of them have survived and because Gothic tapestries of almost any sort are so hard to find nowadays, they should be noted. They are mainly composed of figures uniform in size, arranged on the field with due regard to spacing, but almost without accent, so much alike are the personages in size and dress and attitude.
A favorite subject among them is the Court of Love, yet it might as well have been called a Garden Party, or a Reception at the House of a Noble. Young women all dressed alike in heavy draperies and heads coifed after the local fashion of 1500 A.D., stand solidly while young men respectfully address them. As is noticeable in receptions of today the women outnumber the men, and to dispose of these extras they are set in the far background as wall-flowers have ever been.
These tapestries have lost the architectural division of scenes. The exquisite subterfuge of slender Gothic dividing columns has disappeared. The tender treatment of the face which could reproduce the subtlety of human expression is not found here. And one of these tapestries is very like another. Evidently they were made to hang in folds, not stretched like a picture, and when so hung their charm reveals itself. The tall ladies of long straight hanging robes seem actually to sway with animation when the tapestry is moved by a current of air or a restless hand.
Louis XI who denuded Arras of its weavers in 1477, died only six years later, but his acts lived after him. The thousands of workers engaged in the weaving of tapestries many of whom took refuge in Brussels, never returned to their homes. It was due entirely to this emigration that Brussels became the center of the industry and remained for generations the chief city of production. There were other cities at work, but the greatest fame was for Brussels with its Arras weavers.
At this time the weavers in various small towns of northern France were imitating Flanders. Their tapes-tries form one of the enigmas of the dealer or collector who wishes to place their origin, to attribute them definitely to Lille to Tournai or to some smaller place. Often one can but say with charming inexactness they are French, and let it go at that. But as tapestries have an atmosphere given by the race or the individuals who weave them, these French tapestries have a quality all their own. Were I to try to define it such words would come to mind as suavity, softness, contrasts, harmony, proportion, which all together would mean an originality that emanates from an intelligent instinct for style.
Brussels remained ever true to certain conventions in design, while the French method was freer. Brussels followed long the mode set by the early painters who themselves were bound by convention, and therefore her best masters preserved high excellence. I mention Matsys, Van Eyck and all that band of early artists who produced for their patrons the triptych, or triple, picture for religious uses. It was arranged in three panels, hung together with hinges, and served in a church or at private worship. The master tapissier perhaps had one in his own house and knelt before its scenes of the Life of Christ. It is easy to see how logical it would be for him to put into his weaving the Gothic frame to divide the scenes as in the triptych.
And then came the introduction of a new style of art into the land of the Flemish weavers, the art of Italy's High Renaissance. The perfection of Gothic art had been reached, was in its most lovely flowering at about 1500. Yet in 1518 it was to be pushed into the background and to disappear altogether by reason of the cartoons drawn by Raphael which were sent to Brussels for their weaving.
To know what perfection in tapestries means, one should associate freely with such tapestries as that one reproduced here which represents scenes in the Life of the Virgin. The artist who drew the cartoon knew how to express therein a religious fervor and tender sentiment. Apart from that he knew how to keep to the Gothic convention of making many scenes obviously separated, yet of retaining the unity of the whole. Looked at as a single composition its arrangement is without error. And each scene is a completed picture.
The quaint roughness of the earlier Burgundian methods had been outgrown. Even the more finished ones of many personages all on one plane like the Court of Love had been discarded. In place of these, as weavers grew more able, came the light fine texture which alone could portray the designs of the most talented of artists.
Thus came such perfection of Gothic art as that displayed in the old mellow tapestries similar to that pictured here. Each scene is full of an undying beauty that never loses value, whatever style of art may be in vogue. It is tender, appealing, human, besides which it speaks of a more cultivated state of mind than do the earlier works, and includes more indications of elegant living. And over the whole is thrown that atmosphere of devout worship and religious spirit that once expressed itself in the building of the great cathedrals.
Yet in all this improvement in their art—its modernizing, if you like—there appeared no classic or Hellenic details. The far country below the feet of the ascending Virgin is dressed with medieval towers, not Roman remains, the chalice offered the Child in the Adoration is truly Gothic, such as was in use in Flanders in 1500. The separating columns have no trace of Greek invention, but are purely Gothic. And all the rich apparel of the subjects is rich with the designs at that day on the looms of Florence, Venice and the Ottoman Empire, districts which were silk centers of the times.
It is the production of the perfect Gothic tapestry that Italy interrupted when she sent to Brussels the celebrated Raphael cartoons of The Acts of the Apostles. It happened in this wise: a Medici Pope, Leo X, was in the Vatican from 1513 to 1521. Like others of his great family he was a collector and a patron of art. He with all the world knew the perfection of the tapestry-weavers of Brussels, and on finding none in Italy equal 'to the task of translating into wool and silk the designs of the great master, he despatched the cartoons by special messengers to Flanders.
One can fancy the wonder and consternation of the master weavers on unrolling the great surfaces of life-size figures drawn with free hand after the strong Italian manner. All their work had been on a scale that seemed miniature compared to this, full of almost meticulous detail. Now it would be necessary to loosen the hand, to let lines flow and make the rhythm of moving human bodies apparent.
The work was done. There was no doubt about the ability of the Brussels weavers to follow any type of cartoon. Two years or so the weavers were busy on this set of The Acts of the Apostles which still hangs in the Vatican. And during that time of absorption in the new manner, the old was set aside. And thus came the class of tapestries named for the Renaissance.
Perhaps among the master-weavers were some who wept for the destruction of the Gothic. Perhaps there are some collectors today whose eyes water for the same reason. A good Renaissance is now hard to procure, but a good Gothic is almost impossible.
To Raphael's cartoons is due the introduction of large figures in wide-curved draperies, also the half nude male figures with muscular anatomy as well defined as though directed by a physician. To him also is attributable a new series of Bible scenes in which large figures of men and women enact the life of Moses or of Solomon. At first these scenes took as background the Roman architecture, but soon the weavers fell back into old ways with the out-of-doors. Rome was far away, the Flemish landscape was a part of each man's consciousness, so back it came as a setting for Biblical scenes. The little hills with towered castles, the slopes all filled with rows of little puff-ball trees took the place of the arid lands of the Pharaohs and Judeans, and today we are glad of the childishness of the weaver.
Those who have had shown to them The Acts of the Apostles in the Vatican will remember the marvelous borders. Borders were a mere inconspicuous finish, a narrow- frame, in Gothic work. In the Renaissance tapestries they become a high type of design. The border on the plate which represents the Life of the Virgin illustrates the quiet fashion of the Gothic. That on the Garden Scene shows the change that the Renaissance introduced. The latter in its highest expression is an amazing result of fertile talent. The border is built up of scene after scene, each one of which might be used as subject for an entire tapestry. And interspersed with these are a hundred decorative motives from old carvings and paintings all intermixed with foliage, fruit and flowers.
In The Adoration of the Kings, which was woven at Brussels directly after the Raphael invasion, a man of talent has accomplished a marvel—he has retained the simplicity and purity of the older spirit, yet has re-leased his figures from restraint. In other words has retained the spirit of the Gothic while introducing the technique of the more intellectual Renaissance. This background employs the ruins of old Rome, but with-out destroying the simplicity of atmosphere. And in the border he merely enlarges and amplifies the vegetation of preceding years.
Brussels retained her fame for many years. Although Bruges was an able second. The excellence of her production was not a matter of accident. Rules, severe ones, were established in the ateliers—I hesitate to call them factories though the great amount of their production would seem to class them as such. The master-weaver or chief of the atelier being of necessity an artist, had high ideals, and held his men to them. All were also members of the guilds, and thus came to an agreement as to standards of excellence.
A bewildering amount of orders poured into Brussels in this first half of the Sixteenth Century. All of Europe, and even beyond, began to feel that without tapestries the home of a noble or the palace of a king was notably incomplete. Orders before that century were apt to come for single pieces, often as gifts to the church. But after the Raphael set, the demand was for many. In the late Fifteenth Century one hanging held all the scenes of a history whether that history was of an individual or of a country's conquests. But Raphael's free drawings had set new fashions in this as well as in mannerisms of design. Each piece of tapestry there-after must represent one scene only and many tapestries went to make up a set. The effect of this was to increase the size of the orders. Fashion governs ever, and the fashion of sets in tapestries prevailed for two hundred years.
Perhaps it was pride, perhaps it was self-protection that caused the weavers of Brussels to enact a law that all their works which reached high standards of excellence should bear a certain mark woven into the gal-loon or tape with which the border of each piece was protected. This mark was formed by two affronted B's with a shield between, the two letters indicating the town of Brussels and the district of Brabant. Misuse of this symbol was forestalled by establishing most horrid penalties for the offender. Today we fall upon this mark with the joy of certain identification.
More than intriguing are some of the tapestries woven between 1518 and 155o. Usually one style dies by gradual decadence before another rises to splendor, and this causes a period of false art. But no such thing happened in Flanders tapestries. At the moment of the highest perfection of their Gothic manner, the ideals of the developed Renaissance were imposed upon the ateliers. And with high regard . for the more intellectual ideals the mode was carefully copied.
But after a while an amusing thing happened, the tapissier drifted back into some of his old native ways. He became again a man who expressed in his art the peculiarities of his land and its people. And thus came tapestries which seemed like a transition between Gothic and Renaissance, but were really after the change instead of before it.
To this class belong many which delight those who revel in inconsistencies, such as an ostrich hunt where the hunters are dressed in Roman armor and the scene is set among the formal gardens of a Flemish castle. Many verdures were woven near the middle of the century, fascinating scenes of forest trees and flowers, with dogs and animals dashing about, and a distant background of hilly slopes with rows of tiny trees. They replace the millefleurs of Gothic times, but lack, alas, the exquisite naivete of the earlier product.
Their borders are exponents of the newer manner, and altogether overbalance the central field by their sophistication, being composed of scenes and details purely Renaissance, and are woven with excess of width.
Sometimes two single figures like two persons from Roman mythology or from Bible tales impose their conspicuous shapes upon such a verdure. And then one feels that in this the master of the atelier has woven only the figures. And apropos of the wide border, each atelier kept ready at hand many small drawings of figures and of ornamental details which the worker might combine at will. This type of verdure tapestry is one we often see and therefore is of interest.
Alas, we have to record the ultimate downfall of the Flemish tapestry. The pressure of orders led to unlovely cheapening of the work. Standards were lowered in designs, in weaving and in dyeing. Coarser threads make quicker results, so were adopted. Cheaper dyes and quicker methods of applying them were used. So the colors failed to stand the assaults of sunlight. It was a natural decay but a deplorable.
When the art revived it was in other countries and under the patronage of kings, but before reviewing those epochs a moment should be spent in glancing at Italy of the Sixteenth Century.
It was for some time her practise to impress the skill of Flanders into her service. The Raphael cartoons were sent to her more or less experimentally, to try out her ability. This being ably proved, more and yet more cartoons were dispatched to the famous weavers.
But Italy was not content. This was a time when the cities of northern Italy were peopled by conspicuous patrons of art. The Medici, the Sforza, the d'Este, the Tornabuoni families were among them. Add to these the popes, often supplied from the prominent families and it is easy to see that Italy might well ask why she should look outside for help in artistic matters.
The first step in weaving was to import into Italy certain talented tapissiers from Brussels, among them being Nicholas Karcher and John Rost. The former with his brother John were secured to superintend an experimental atelier by the Duke of Ferrara and the d'Este family. The cartoonist was of course Italian. The experiment succeeded in that atmosphere of Italy's high renaissance, and the work continued until the Duke's own large needs were supplied. Then followed a period of weaving for the public, and many a tapestry of exquisite perfection flowed out into Italian palaces. From 1534 to 1597 the ateliers flourished, and then the mode changed, the demand lessened, tapestries were no longer the most sought of decorative materials.
Andrea Mantegna must be mentioned as a cartoonist, and also Bacchiacca, as these two men were responsible for a type that has appeared in both of the high moments of tapestry weaving after the Gothic. This is the use of the so-called grotesques, small decorative figures found in Roman and Grecian art, such as the sphinx, the figure of man or boy which tapers off into acanthus leaves of a single point, or masks set in swags of fruit, caryatides, animals, and any other thing real or mythic. All this was drawn with no regard to natural scale, and all was lightly placed on a wide plain field of color. The Galleria degli Arrazzi in Florence shows examples to the interested wanderer. It was in the Eighteenth Century that this same type of composition was revived. The "tri
umphs" of the gods were also produced, figures from Olympus in small scale, each in its decorated niche. These were repeated in the Eighteenth Century.
Italy's tapestries, perfect as they were, with intelligence in the design and suavity in color, were only too few in number. They are scarcely obtainable now in these days when the finest examples are permanently enclosed in museums. The ateliers which came later grew a larger harvest, but for the tapestries they produced we have little love. They were the looms of the Barberini in the Seventeenth Century.
It was a time when art was affected by the followers of great masters of the past. Raphael had been succeeded by his florid pupil Guilio Romano, Rubens had appeared to carry exaggeration still further, and tapestries flaunted oversized figures unsuitable for hanging anywhere but in large public galleries or cathedrals. The two most perfect periods were entirely ended.