This history of tapestries indicates clearly that a tapestry wall-hanging in your home brings not just interior
beauty but also a sense of history. European weavers have produced
these textiles for centuries, including medieval, renaissance
and Arts and Crafts periods.
Tapestry weaving has been known for hundreds of years in diverse cultures.
Both ancient Egyptians and the Incas buried their dead in tapestry
woven clothing. Important civic buildings of the Greek Empire,
including the Parthenon, had walls covered by them. However it
was the French medieval weavers who brought the craft to fruition.
In the 13th and 14th centuries the Church recognized
the value of tapestries in illustrating Bible stories to its
illiterate congregations. Few of these have survived. The oldest
existing set is the Apocalypse of St John, six hangings 18 foot
high, totalling 471 foot in length which were woven from 1375
to 1379 in Paris. This was the centre of production until the
Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453) caused the weavers to flee north
via Arras to Flanders (now Belgium and northern France).
Tapestries became status symbols amongst the aristocracy in the
Middle Ages. They also had much practical use, providing insulation
for castle walls, covering openings and giving privacy around
beds. Kings and nobles took them on their travels from castle
to castle for reasons of comfort and prestige. Tapestries often
changed hands after battle, and since the victor's door and window
openings might be a different size the acquired hangings might
be cut up or even joined to other tapestries.
Many of the best known works such as the 'Lady with the Unicorn'
series were woven at the turn of the 15th century in the Loire
valley. It has been estimated that 15,000 people were employed
in the craft at this time. Many were itinerant and passed their
skills from father to son. Their charming 'mille fleurs' scenes
had backgrounds of small local flowers, perhaps inspired by the
practice of strewing roadways with flowers on local fete days.
At this time it would take a skilled father/son team two months
to weave just one square foot of tapestry.
Medieval weavers extracted their dyes from plants and insects
in a range of less than twenty colours. For example, red came
from madder, poppies or pomegranates and woad produced blue (a
process that was so profitable in 16th century France that importing
woad from the East was punishable by death).
The most popular medieval images were Biblical stories, myths,
allegories (the ever-popular unicorn represented purity), and
contemporary scenes of peasants working or nobles hunting. Battles
were commissioned by victorious monarchs after the early 1500's.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was even accompanied into battle
by his court painter who made sketches at the site for later
weaving. Hunting scenes led to 'verdure' tapestries of lush
landscapes which later became romanticized with increasing Italian
Medieval weavers used working sketches which they freely adapted
with imagination and sometimes humour. By the Renaissance these
had become full-sized working drawings ('cartoons') which were
rigidly copied by the weavers. Thus tapestries became mere copies
of paintings rather than independent works of art. In 1515 Raphael
was commissioned by the Pope to paint cartoons for the 'Acts of
the Apostles' tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. His introduction
of perspective and composition together with the use of finer
yarns dyed with up to 300 colour shades led to the subservience
of tapestry to painting for over 300 years.