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Medieval tapestries.

Medieval tapestries

Looking carefully

In Medieval times, large, movable tapestries were woven to decorate bare stone walls and help reduce echoes in large castle rooms. The scenes were usually from the Bible, the classics or other literature. They were woven on vertical or horizontal looms with many bobbins of different colored thread. The complex and expensive process testifies to the exceptionally high skills of the tapestry weavers.

The early sixteenth century tapestry shown on the next two pages, titled The Prophecy of Nathan, is an example of a Medieval narrative tapestry. It portrays three scenes from the Biblical story of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel, Chapter 11 and 12). The first two scenes in the upper corners depict King David, who has become enthralled with Bathsheba, sending Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, to his death on the battlefield. Bathsheba later mourns the loss of her husband, becomes the wife of David and bears his child.

The third, and climactic, scene is displayed in the center and entire lower register of the composition. As is the custom in Medieval tapestry, the three scenes are not depicted separately from each other. The third scene shows Nathan in David's court having just related the parable of the rich man slaughtering the poor man's lamb to feed his guest. Nathan then compares David to the rich man and prophesies that it will not be David who dies in punishment, but the child of David and Bathsheba. Nathan's outstretched leg and arm create a dramatic link between Nathan and David.

Created in Brussels, the design of this tapestry has been attributed to Master Philip, whose characteristic style can be identified, in part, by the three quarter views of many of the thirty-eight figures. Master Philip tended to place his tightly arranged groups of figures one above the other. He seemed to love to show people in the elaborate and intricate costume fashionable during his day and to depict the many folds of the clothing in a sculptural manner that resembles the dramatic stone figurative sculpture of his time.

Note the striking patterns of David's clothing which set him in contrast to the rug beneath his feet. The well-preserved blues of the tapestry dominate the field of a typical Gothic color scheme which also includes red, green, brown and the natural color of the wool. Also typical are the many plants which appear at the feet of the court--daffodils, violets, dandelions, berries and poppies--illustrating the Medieval interest in botany and creating an involved repetition of shapes and colors.


It is simple to identify a Monet painting by style or to recognize that a student's work has been created in the style of Picasso if you are familiar with work by either artist. Despite the fact that personal style seems an anachronism in godly Medieval life, the work of Master Philip can be characteristically identified.

The two tapestries illustrated here exhibit similar pictorial characteristics attributed to Master Philip, whose atelier was responsible for the cartoons or plans from which each was woven. In the true spirit of the Medieval distribution of responsibility to get the maximum production, Master Philip's cartoons would have been created into tapestries by other craftsmen. Additionally, he did not work on all the hundreds of cartoons produced by his studio, but the look of the final products bear the look of the Master. For one, the character heads include stereotypic, heavy-featured older men and small-featured women and youth. Notice the stylized look of the faces--the similar shapes and expressions.

Unlike The Prophecy of Nathan, the sixteenth century tapestry above depicts a non-Biblical scene. A royal Lady is surrounded by ladies and courtiers, musicians and announcing angels as she receives a laurel tribute before an altar. The composition may actually show a contemporary Medieval version of the ancient Greek tale of the nymph Daphne, who refused Apollo's love and was transformed into a laurel tree. The two figures on the upper right may be Apollo and Latona, Apollo's mother.

The unsigned nature of Medieval work gives it an anonymous feel. Yet, tracing an artist's style through more than one piece reveals a subtle signature. The clues Master Philip left to identify his work leave no doubt that a Medieval artist's style can be as recognizable as a Picasso or Monet.

Key concepts

* Textiles are usually categorized by technique, such as tapestry or embroidery, just as the other arts. Textile artists' styles are identified in ways similar to other arts (i.e., use of elements, subject, etc.).

* An artist may choose to tell an historical tale using a contemporary setting and contemporary dress.

* Weaving was an important factor in Medieval life--artistically, economically and politically.

* Despite the fact that weaving is technically a creation of horizontal and vertical elements, specific techniques, such as tapestry, may be used for pictorial subjects.

* A narrative subject may be shown in a single composition through the depiction of more than one event.

Medieval tapestry

Tapestry, like other woven fabric, is constructed of warp and weft threads. The warp, a series of parallel threads the full length of the fabric, is attached to the loom. A cartoon or plan might be placed behind the warp to guide the weavers in creating a picture or design. Threads used during the Medieval period would have been spun by hand and dyed by skilled craftsmen using such natural dyes as indigo, madder or Brazilwood. Using the cartoon as a guide, the weavers would work the weft over and under the perpendicular warp. Color changes would be made as indicated and the weft threads would either interlock, dovetail or otherwise meet one another. The clear characteristic of tapestry is that the picture or decoration is the fabric and not simply applied to another fabric. Tapestry is most easily identified if the image on it is in reverse on the back of the fabric. The earliest examples of the technique were found at Thebes and date from 1420 B.C.

Owning a tapestry in late Medieval days was a luxury enjoyed by wealthy clerics, feudal nobles and affluent merchants. The rich vied with one another as they placed their orders with important tapestry manufacturers. Tapestries were used for interior hangings as decorations, for feasts and holidays, or in battle tents. Subjects varied from myths and chivalrous adventures to sacred subjects.

France and Burgundy dominated the tapestry industry until about 1500. War between Charles the Bold of Burgundy and France's Louis XI caused many weavers to flee from the area. The new rulers of the house of Austria, with their capital in Brussels, encouraged a successful tapestry industry. Brussels had an established dyeworks; the first weaving guild roles were established there in 1450-51; English wool, which was quite coveted, was delivered easily through Antwerp; and it had become home to many weavers who escaped the war.

Master Philip's atelier was responsible for over a hundred tapestry designs in Brussels. His influence remained until the High Renaissance arrived in Brussels through the work of Raphael.

Suggested activities Elementary

* Create a frame loom (approximately 24" x 30"; 61 cm x 76 cm). Warp the loom with threads about 1/4" apart. Create a large, fairly simple cartoon and place it behind the warp. After a full explanation to the class about tapestry techniques, let each child spend some time working on the group design. The finished group design might be displayed somewhere in the school.

* Recreate the reality of a textile industry in the Middle Ages. Group students and assign individual tasks. Have one student act as the patron who comes to the industry and employs the group to complete a commission. It will also be the patron's job to periodically send letters asking about the progress of the work since the actual Medieval commission would take years. The designer will take the idea of the patron and make a cartoon or plan. It will also be the job of the designer to keep in touch with the patron regarding the progress. An additional designer may be used to create the border. Those preparing yarns and dyeing them will actually cut lengths of the properly colored construction paper. The weavers could simulate the process by cutting the long lengths of papers and glueing them to the cartoon. The final produce is presented to the patron.

* Present reproductions of tapestries from historical to contemporary. Compare and contrast the varous tapestries as you might compare and contrast paintings. DIscuss how each tapestry shows the figure or other subject; which colors were chosen; how a weaver used or did not use pattern; what borders do to various tapestries, etc.

* Differentiate among full-view portrait and three-quarter view. Make a bulletin board collection of photos, reproductions, snapshots, etc. of people shown in three-quarter view. Students will then create a self-portrait in three quarter view. A study of the flowers and patterns used in The Prophecy of Nathan might help inspire the background for the portraits.


* Have students create an historic scene or story using contemporary dress and setting. Imagine Snow White and the seven dwarfs in modern dress or Rembrandt's Night Watch revised to the 1990's.

* After a study of tapestry, introduce students to the famous "Bayeux Tapestry" which is frequently displayed in textbooks or audio visual resources. Present the students with a puzzle to solve. Ask them to discover why the term "Bayeux Tapestry" is a misnomer. (The answer is that the "Bayeux Tapestry" is actually an embroidery of colored wools on linen cloth.)

* Study the stonelike look of clothing on the figures in The Prophecy of Nathan. This was a characteristic style of Master Philip of Brussels whose design was probably used for this work. Using a model with loose, full clothing posed with a strong light source, create a painting or drawing which features the figure in sculptural, stonelike clothing. If you have access to a museum with medieval or classical sculpture, take the students for a visit to draw from the sculpture.

* Noting how the drapery of one figure has penetrated the border of the tapestry design, locate reproductions of modern fine arts or advertising which employ this same device. Create a display of these examples and discuss how modern artists might be respired by artistic devices used by artists of history.

* Most people of Medieval time were illiterate. The tapestry, like stained glass windows and many other arts, visually told a tale or showed an event. Many advertisers today address their work to an audience which either cannot read or chooses not to when looking at advertising. Looking at both Medieval examples and modern examples, the student will be able to create an advertisement or promotion which transmits the same message visually as the slogan or message.


Cozman, Madeleine Pelner. Fabulous Feasts: Medieval Cookery and Ceremony. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1976.

Fossier, Robert, ed., The Cambridge Illustrated History of the Middle Ages. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Held, Shirley E. Weaving: A Handbook for Fiber Craftsmen. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1973.

Rowling, Marjorie. Everyday Life in Medieval Times. New York: Dorset Press, 1968.

Schuman, Jo Miles. Art From Many Hands. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1981.

Sevensma, W.S. Tapestries, New York: Universe Books, Inc., 1965.

Strokstad, Marilyn. Medieval Art. New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Pamela Hellwege is Department Head, Teacher and Youth Programs, The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis, Missouri.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Davis Publications, Inc.
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Title Annotation:Looking/Learning
Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1990
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