Brief History of Tapestries

Tapestries today may not be used for noble families, but they can still be used to fill the halls and rooms of stately homes everywhere. This timeless form of art is every bit as relevant in our modern times as it was hundreds of years ago.

In Morris' Tree of Life tapestry, he used the mille fleurs background on which to place the tree that Adam and Eve ate from in the Bible. Using a high-warp loom, he incorporated many of the same medieval techniques into his art.

This artist was renowned in the late 1800s in England, and he had a serious appreciation for the art forms that came before him. He looked to the Middle Ages for more than just inspiration though, he actually wanted to replicate, preserve, and revive them.

Tapestries captured the imagination of those who stood before them. Those who gaze upon The Lady and the Unicorn can't help but attempt to interpret its meaning, especially the last depiction which could represent the Sixth Sense. While castle life may have been falling out of fashion after the Industrial Revolution, the works of William Morris led to a resurgence in tapestries in the 19th Century.


The Revival in the 1800s

Up until the 1500s, tapestries were largely still lacking in detail. Around the time that mille fleur was introduced, historians noted a shift in the quality of the tapestries. Literally a thousand flowers, this style denotes countless leaves and flowers to create a background for the central image. It was around this time that gilded silver threads also became more popular.

Most early tapestry makers would use wool, both due to its availability and durability. In addition, it could be dyed in any number of colors, which would help to flesh out the stories being told. However, as time went by, you can find strands of linen, silk, or cotton, particularly when analyzing the weft threads. This allowed for even more color and detail, with silk giving the tapestry a distinctive sheen — a stark contrast to the dull and darker woolen threads.

Wall Tapestries are often compared to paintings, an apt simile given that many of the creators were more famously known as painters. While many tapestries have been well-preserved and protected throughout the centuries, many more have been lost to time. This may be because they were dismissed by historians who considered them to be mere carbon copies of more famous paintings. But as more was learned about the techniques used to make these works of art, it's clear that tapestries were severely under appreciated.

The Artists

You can also find tapestry used as upholstery or on cushions. Similar to wall hangings, these tapestries may pay tribute to historical figures, but some may just have decorative patterns in sumptuous colors.

Some of the more expansive wall tapestries could be used to cover cavernous castle hallways or abbey walls. They would be designed to insulate castle walls from the drafts of winter and the scorch of summer. Oblong tapestries were generally meant either for castles or churches, and unlikely to be moved very often.

During transport, families could roll up smaller tapestries that could be used for prayer or during times of reflection. It would be seen both as an offering to fellow noble families as well as a demonstration of wealth. Families might keep the tapestry protected at their residence if they weren't traveling or planning to host an important guest. They might experiment with different places to hang the tapestry to best highlight its features.

One of the reasons why wall tapestries were in such high demand for aristocrats during these times is because tapestries were considered a portable status symbol, and art. When noble families were traveling, they needed something that could be packed and stored away when visiting different homes and regions. Tapestry art was considered portable wealth. 

Practical and Beautiful

But Paris would eventually see a return of french tapestry makers. Most notably, the Gobeline family. Dyers who settled in Paris in the mid-1400s, they eventually made a name for themselves in the city. By the early 1600s, Henry IV leased space from the Gobeline factory for Flemish tapestry makers. From there, the factory served as the preeminent place for royals to purchase tapestry (with its most famous customer being Louis XIV). Today, the factory still displays surviving wall tapestries in temporary exhibits to allow for additional viewings.

Up until the 100 Years War, tapestry producers largely sought to make their fortunes in Paris. It wasn't until the conflict that artists fled further for refuge. Some ended up in northwestern France until their facilities were plundered by Louis XI. After that, the border city of Flanders became an important center of handwoven textiles.

While most of the church's tapestries have been lost to time, you can still see the Apocalypse of St. John in Angers France. This dramatic six-part tapestry shows the last battle between good and evil and violent images of angels battling the beasts of Hell.

The Catholic Church also relied heavily on tapestries to illustrate the Bible through its depictions during the 13th and 14th centuries. Because most congregants were illiterate at this time, these magnificent hangings were pivotal to passing down the canon of the religion.

Thought to represent the five senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, sound), the detail of the animals and the noblewoman are undeniable. This particular artwork is generally considered to be the best representation from the Middle Ages and was commissioned by either by a nobleman in the court of King Charles VII.

Moving forward from the Viking Age, the general agreement is that tapestry weaving reached its height around the 1400s, otherwise known as the later stages of the Middle Ages. If you travel to the Musée National du Moyen Âge in Paris, you'll find The Lady and the Unicorn, a story in six tapestries whose exact meaning has been lost to time.


Medieval and Renaissance Times

Dating back to the 11th century, its sections have been split up to be displayed in various museums throughout Europe. There is some debate around the dates of the Överhogdal and St. Gereon tapestries, though they were likely made around the same time.

One of the most well-preserved and famous tapestries from this time is the Cloth of St. Gereon, a mural that shows a bull toiling against a griffin, the mythical creature with head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion.

Of the survivors, you'll find the Överhogdal tapestries in the Överhogdal Church in Sweden. Made of five pieces in a soumak weave, the art displays a variety of people and animals. While there is some debate about whether certain figures are either Christian or Norse, there does seem to be a collision of both pagans and Christian figures. Showing general movement in one direction, there's also the depiction of a tree and ship, as well as general inscriptions.

It's rare to see European tapestries from Late Antiquity (roughly 400 – 1000 AD), despite the fact that weavings were not difficult to find prior to Late Antiquity. It's possible that these woven decorations have either been lost to time or that there was a general decline in demand during the Viking Age.


The Viking Age

The quality of the tapestry depends on how close the warp (lengthwise) threads are pressed together. The weft threads obscure the warp threads entirely and are only used to produce the design (meaning they're not pulled through all the way to ends of the fabric unless necessary). Both yesterday and today, tapestries were made for the wealthy. The level of skill and expense it takes to make them have long reserved them for the upper echelons of society.

It's not uncommon for people to call any heavy fabric a tapestry. In this context, the term could be used to describe anything from a wall hanging to a sofa covering. If an art history major used the word though, it would likely refer to reversible, handwoven textiles that feature a discernible pattern.


The Meaning of Tapestry

The ancient Incas and Egyptians would cover their dead in hand-woven shrouds, and looms have been discovered as old as 3,000 BCE. But while tapestries have been found all over the world, the most famous examples come from Europe. We'll examine the well-known tapestries throughout the ages, why they were used, and what they reveal about the people who both made and purchased them.

The hands behind the cloth are able to produce countless images in incredible detail, leading tapestries to rise in popularity over the centuries. The history of tapestries is fascinating, and helps us to understand more about the values of the time period from which they came.

Tapestries have long been beloved throughout time by people of nearly every generation and culture. These woven masterpieces do more than showcase rich colors and luxurious fabrics, they also tell treasured stories or pay homage to important figures. Made by hand with warp and weft threads, the versatility of tapestries is undeniable.


FAQ About Tapestries

Who Invented Tapestries ?

Tapestries were possibly invented by the Egyptians, and later adopted by Greeks into their culture. 


When Was The First Tapestry Made ?

The first tapestry was probably made by the Greeks, however the first tapestries discovered were found in the Tarim Basin in China and were Greek. 


What Was The Purpose of Tapestries ? 

Renaissance tapestries consisted of symbolic symbols, mottoes, or coats of arms, known as a baldachin it was mounted behind the throne and was a symbol of power and authority.

In medieval times walls of the castles were often decorated with tapestry hangings during winter festivals, parties, and other celebrations. They were often used during special occasions in churches. Tapestries ultimately were also a method of portable wealth and history.


How Did They Make Tapestries ?

Tapestries were woven by a master weaver who often used wool and silk and other precious materials. The tapestry weaver often worked in an artisan tapestry factory or tapestry workshop. They were often commissioned by royal families, and other wealthy families. 


What are some famous tapestries ?

  • Trojan War Tapestry
  • Cloth of St Gereon
  • Overhogdal Tapestries
  • Sampul Tapestry
  • Hestia Tapestry
  • Bayeux Tapestry
  • Apocalypse Tapestry
  • Lady and The Unicorn series
  • Devonshire Hunting Tapestries 
  • Tapestry of Trajan and Herkinbald 
  • Triumph and Fame Tapestry
  • Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestry
  • The Hunts of Maximilian
  • Life and miracles of St Adelphus
  • Tapestries of The Sistine Chapel
  • The Quaker Tapestry


Who were some famous tapestry weavers ?

  • William Morris
  • Sir Edward Burne-Jones
  • Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo
  • Emile Bernard
  • Aristide Maillol
  • Charles Le Brun
  • Jean Lurcat
  • Francois Boucher
  • Pieter Van Aeist
  • Bernard Van Orley
  • Peter Paul Rubens


What are some famous types of tapestries ?

  • Bayeux Tapestries
  • Medieval Tapestry
  • Royal Tapestries 
  • Coat of Arms Tapestries 
  • Apocalypse Tapestries
  • Unicorn Tapestries
  • Verdure Tapestry
  • European Tapestries 
  • Flemish Tapestries
  • Contemporary Tapestry