The art of tapestry weaving had its origin in remote antiquity. The oldest examples which have come down to us are the Coptic tapestry weaves for the ornament of costumes, which date in a general way from the first seven centuries of our era. Since the fundamental process of manufacture is simple—a warp or framework of parallel threads over which the variously colored threads of the weft are woven in design—it is not surprising to find that in a country so far distant from Egypt as Peru there were produced five centuries or more ago textiles which are identical in weave with the Coptic fabrics. In the technical sense these are tapestries, but as we use the word today, we generally mean by tapestries the wall hangings woven in the Gothic, Renaissance and later periods of Occidental art.There exist a few tapestries of European origin which date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but it is only in the fifteenth century that we begin to find abundant evidence of the growing popularity and extensive weaving of tapestries. Several towns now come into prominence as seats of flourishing manufacture. Arras, for example, became so closely associated with the weaving of tapestries that it gave its name to the product, a name that survives today in Italy where tapestries are still called arazzi.
In England, too, tapestries are frequently spoken of even now as arras. During the fifteenth century the art flourished in France, Burgundy and the Netherlands, and to some extent, in Italy. In the two following centuries the Flemish looms were pre-eminent. They were succeeded in the eighteenth century by the great French manufactories of the Gobelins, Beauvais and Aubusson. The golden age of tapestry weaving includes the fifteenth century and the first third of the sixteenth, that is, the latter part of the Gothic period and the years of transition from Gothic to Renaissance in the North.Tapestry designing reached its highest level in the Gothic and Transitional Gothic periods. Tapestries of this time are not only beautiful in themselves; their designs are suited to the purpose for which the tapestries were hung around the walls of the room, not only to beautify the room but to serve the practical purpose of preventing drafts and the penetration of cold from the stone walls, it was eminently proper that these wall decorations should be architectonic in character; that is, should decorate the wall surface, but at the same time should suggest the presence of the wall, its stability and relationship to the architectural construction of the room. Any form of mural decoration which is realistic, in the sense that it strives to create an illusion of space, destroys the architectural character of a room and if for that reason essentially inappropriate. With propriety, therefore, tapestry designers conventionalized to some extent their drawing of figures and draperies, and composed without regard to spatial effects, adding figures one above the other, with little or no expanse of sky, and filling in empty areas with such decorative devices as plant forms and inscriptions. The colors were few in number and contributed further emphasis to the decorative character of the weave. There is, moreover, another quality, aside from that of decoration, which distinguishes Gothic tapestries. This is the personal note, the individuality lacking in later productions when the weavers imitated closely the full-size cartoons provided for them. Gothic tapestries were woven from small sketches—petits patrons,
as they are called—and in the translation from the artist’s model to the full-size tapestry the weaver had an opportunity to express something of his own artistic personality. This gave to his product that vitality of line and mass which the copyist never secured.With the spread of Renaissance influence to the North, however, all this came to an end. Tapestries were no longer desired with that sense of functional propriety which characterizes the Gothic period, but became more or less slavish imitations of pictures. Raphael’s famous cartoons for the Sistine tapestries did irremediable damage in establishing this fashion for pictorial models. By the seventeenth century weavers included in their tapestries the frame as well as the picture, and from the simple border, or none at all, which we find on Gothic tapestries, we come to the woven imitations of gilded frames, modeled in chiaroscuro, which enjoyed such great popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is only in recent times, thanks largely to the efforts of the great decorator, William Morris, and his gifted co-worker, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, that we have had an occasional return to the Gothic type of tapestry designing.Not only were Gothic tapestries originally costly affairs, but so few have survived wanton destruction and the ravages of time that existing specimens of fine quality command enormous prices. Fortunately, however, it has been possible to acquire for the Institute at a reasonable figure a good-sized panel, not a complete tapestry to be sure, but of sufficient size to illustrate satisfactorily the splendid achievements of the Gothic weavers. The piece measures 72 3/4 inches in height by 36 3/8 inches in breadth. It has evidently been cut from a large tapestry, representing the Crucifixion, presumably of Flemish origin, and dating from the late fifteenth century, roughly about 1490-1500. The design, although fragmentary, is attractive in composition; two figures are shown completely and the ground is covered with plant and flower forms. Although the colors have faded somewhat, as is always the case with old tapestries, the piece has fortunately escaped the devastating hand of the restorer, and with the exception of some strengthening along contour lines, where the black dye has rotted away, the piece is absolutely untouched. Needless to say, the narrow border which shows in the illustration on page 107, is a modern addition.The tapestry represents a group from a large scene of the Crucifixion. Supported by St. John the Apostle, Our Lady kneels with clasped hands, sorrowfully lifting her eyes to the Cross. Behind this group may be seen the richly patterned gowns of two standing figures. The Virgin’s robe is a soft shade of dull red; her mantle of blue, shading up almost to white in the light passages. Her white wimple time has darkened to ecru. Very much the same color is St. John’s gown, with its scarlet belt. Thrown back over his shoulders is a crimson mantle, now faded to a light rose pink. The original color—of this as well as of the other parts of the tapestry—may be seen in all its purity and strength of hue on the back of the tapestry. The flesh colors are faded and the golden yellows of the halo have been dimmed. The ornate costumes of the two figures in the background present a striking contrast to the simplicity of the draperies of the two figures in the foreground. The pattern of the gown on the left is worked out in shades of blue and ochre, and that on the right in crimson with a simulated inscription in steel blue. Contrasting with the warm brown and olive green of the ground are the colors of the plants and flowers—single carnations, lilies of the valley, violets, columbines, clue-bells, and other charmingly drawn blossoms of the mile fleurs
type.One readily notes that this tapestry has been designed not from the standpoint of the realistic painter but from that of the mural decorator. The absence of any marked spatial effects secured by aerial or linear perspective, the schematic drawing of the draperies, the conventionalization of the flowers, the restricted color scheme, these are not defects but virtues, since we are concerned not with painting but with wall decoration. And within these self-imposed limitations, how vigorous and direct is the beauty which the artist has given to each graceful line, how harmoniously they unite to define areas of color which remind one of the glowing mosaic of Gothic stained glass!Referenced Work of Art
Virgin and Saint John
Flemish, about 1500