History of Medieval Tapestries

History of Ornate Medieval Tapestries and Their Intricate Designs

The art form of tapestry making is a distinctive style and design of the Medieval Ages. Most of tapestries from that age are lost or destroyed but though the physical form is lost, tapestries are fascinating relics with a beautiful and handmade style and design. Read on, to learn how this form of art was created and how it fared with the passage of time.
Historyplex Staff
Last Updated: Mar 5, 2018
Since time immemorial, man has expressed a wish or desire to capture pictures in a preservable or permanent form. Cavemen drew scenes of hunts and food gathering, of fire and their homes, on the walls of caves using ocher or animal blood and sap. The Renaissance saw portraits and artwork come alive, with the paintings of Da Vinci and Michelangelo. The advent of photography did not diminish this creative streak. Instead artists took interesting and varied photographs depicting the situations and styles of their period.

Different imaging forms are usually historical signatures of a period in man's history. The Sistine Chapel is one premier art product of the Renaissance. Marilyn Monroe's silkscreen painting by Andy Warhol is a key indicator of the 60's and 70's. Along with photographs and portraits, one such art cum picturing form is a tapestry. This art form is distinctive for its varied sizes, the instruments used in its production and the physical medium on which it is depicted. It is also the key art form of the Medieval or Middle Ages and partly of the Renaissance. Below is an in-depth look at the inception and history of medieval tapestries.

Timeline of Medieval Tapestries

♜ The word tapestry comes from the old French word tapisserie, which means "to cover with heavy fabric or carpet". A tapestry is art or pictures which are depicted on fabric or thick cloth. Thick and heavy fabric is woven on a vertical loom. The weaving style and materials used in making a tapestry are different from traditional weaving forms.

♜ In weaving, 2 types of threads are used, one which lies parallel to the cloth's length (warp) and the other lying parallel to the cloth's width (weft). With tapestries, the weft threads are visible and thick over the warp threads. Colors and weft threads of different materials are used to provide the design and style of the tapestry.

♜ Perhaps the first tapestry is the Sampul tapestry of Greek origin, found in the Tarim Basin, Sampul. It can be dated as 3rd -2nd century Greek art. Another example is The Hestia Tapestry of 6th century AD, depicting Hestia, Greek goddess of the hearth or fireplace.

♜ Outside Europe, the Ancient Egyptians had a similar form of tapestry making called Kapati. The Chinese used silk and produced tapestries, since the time of the Tang dynasty in 618 AD. They called such weaving kessi.

♜ The tapestry trend began to bloom in Europe around the beginning of the 14th century. Most of it is centered around the countries of France, Germany and Switzerland, where the best and oldest tapestries have been produced.

♜ At first, tapestries were produced rarely. However the Church played a key role in creating interest for the production of this art form. The Church realized the need for historically preserving and depicting key events and morals of the Bible. A physical medium would also serve as promotional material, spreading their message of religion to more people, an effect similar to how posters are used today. Most of the common Church goers were illiterate, words and text had no meaning for them but a picture could stun and captivate.

♜ Earlier smaller tapestries were hand-stitched, resulting in a long and very time-consuming process, so the rate of tapestry production was slow and the products rare but the usefulness of the loom led to an increased rate of production along with better designs and patterns. One weaver could sit at one loom for a smaller tapestry. For a larger sized one, several weavers could work in tandem on the same design.

♜ The trend started by the Church, soon worked its way into the households of the nobles and rich. The house motto and insignia, a coat of arms, a victorious fight against foes, the birth of the next heir... all such occasions could be preserved and best of all, displayed in grandeur.

♜ A tapestry could be rolled up and stored away, when not needed. It could be transported and so would serves as a symbol of the family in other places. Its thick material kept the walls warm and made a room warmer as a result. It also served as an impressive and luxurious symbol of wealth. Above the main table in the eating hall, the lord of the castle could sit on a dais and above him, a beautiful tapestry would showcase his power and might even more.

♜ Soon churches, rich people's houses, town and city halls and castles and forts of the lords and nobles, all had tapestries. They were the symbols of wealth and prosperity and had become a staple in any well-to-do household. With increase in demand, soon craftsmen and weavers became the most sought after artists. France at this time, was the place for tapestries, cities like Paris and Arras had the most skilled and expert craftsmen.

♜ With the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the craftsmen began to migrate to other cities and countries. Flanders became a new region for such a craft, another such refuge was England.

♜ By the advent of the 16th century, tapestry production workshops were spread all over Europe but the Flemish craftsmen of Flanders were the recognized experts in tapestry making. In 1663, Louis XIV commissioned over 800 craftsmen, just to make tapestries for his royal court and dwelling.

♜ Sadly, such a productive period for tapestries was followed by the French Revolution. In the midst of civil unrest and violence, tapestries were regarded as the symbols of the evil monarchy and nobility rule and they were burnt in mass. Only gold and silver threads, present in the design were taken for reselling value. During this period, portraits and the slowly growing interest in the camera wiped out the rage of tapestry making.

♜ Some famous medieval tapestries are
  • Cloth of St Gereon (11th century): Griffin attacking a bull motif
  • Apocalypse of St. John (Late 13th century): Biblical events of the Apocalypse as told to St. John
  • The Bayeux Tapestry (Approx 14th century): Norman invasion of England
  • La Dame à la Licorne (Lady with the Unicorn) Tapestry Series (15th century): Noble woman with unicorn or lion
From the above history of medieval tapestries, the timeline of man's relationship with art is clearly outlined, as he progresses from a simple cave drawing to a weaved depiction form to nowadays digital images. The medieval tapestry can also be thought as one of the earliest status symbols, as every castle or royal household had to have a tapestry!