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European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 Essay Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History The Metropolitan Museum of Art

European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600
Works of Art (17)
Tapestries were ubiquitous in the castles and churches of the late medieval
and Renaissance eras. At a practical level, they provided a form of insulation
and decoration that could be easily transported. In addition, the process of
tapestry weaving, where every stitch is placed by hand, enabled the creation
of complex figurative images on an enormous scale. Many medieval tapestries
measure as much as 5 x 10 yards and sets could include ten or more pieces.
While much production was relatively coarse, intended for decorative
purposes, wealthy patrons could commission designs whose subjects
embodied celebratory or propagandistic themes. Enriched with silk and gilt
metallic thread, such tapestries were a central component of the ostentatious
magnificence used by powerful secular and religious rulers to broadcast their
wealth and might.
Workshops producing simple, small-scale figurative tapestries probably
existed throughout early medieval Europe, much as they were to continue
along the Rhine and in the Swiss cantons well into the sixteenth century (A
Fabulous Beast, 1990.211 ). From the early fourteenth century, a more
sizeable industry capable of producing a steady volume of large, high-quality
tapestries took root in the towns of northern France and the southern
Netherlands. This development was stimulated by the availability of skilled
weavers and dyers associated with the cloth trade, by the existence of local
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
guilds that supported and encouraged the development of this nascent
industry, and by the commissions of local patrons. By the mid-fifteenth
century, numerous tapestry workshops existed in the Low Countries in towns
such as Arras, Tournai, Lille, and Brussels. From these centers, tapestries
were exported throughout Europe.
Created as large-scale wall decorations, medieval tapestries were frequently
hung with sections of the design obscured by furnishings and architectural
features. During the first three-quarters of the fifteenth century, this
encouraged the development of a design style in which the narrative was
distributed over the entire surface of the tapestry and the emphasis was on
line and pattern rather than volumetric illusion. Linear complexity was often
matched by narrative and iconographic complexity (Scenes from the Story
of the Trojan War, 52.69 ). This Netherlandish style differed markedly from
the character of tapestries produced during the same period in small
workshops established in Italian towns such as Siena, Ferrara, and Mantua,
where the products inevitably reflected the development of local aesthetics.
Few of these Italian workshops achieved substantial output or lasted more
than ten years, because they were limited by the wealth and longevity of the
founding patrons.
During the last quarter of the fifteenth century, high-quality Netherlandish
production was increasingly dominated by the workshops in Brussels. This
was the result of three factors: the decline of the industry in Arras and
Tournai; the emergence of Brussels as the principal seat of the Burgundian
court in the Netherlands, which ensured its importance as a center of artistic
and commercial activity; and the monopoly that the Brussels artists’ Guild of
Saint Luke secured in 1476 over the fabrication of figurative tapestry
cartoons. Thereafter, Brussels weavers refined and perfected the techniques
with which they could reproduce the painterly effects of an artist’s cartoon.
Despite the stimulus of the aesthetic developments taking place in Italy, the
Brussels workshops continued to produce tapestry designs of a complex
decorative and narrative character during the early years of the sixteenth
century (The Triumph of Fame, 1998.205 ).
This conservative tendency was challenged by a set of ten tapestries
traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles
(1516–21) that was
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 and woven in Brussels from cartoons
designed and painted by Raphael. The Acts embodied an iconographic
program that was partly intended to celebrate Leo as Christ’s representative
on earth. Raphael devised the scheme as a vast woven fresco incorporating
lifesize figures acting in fully realized illusionistic settings, with extraneous
narrative and decorative detail limited to a judicious minimum. During the
following decade, other tapestry designs by Raphael’s associates were also
produced in Brussels. Through their influence on Northern artists , these
Raphael school designs fundamentally altered the subsequent development of
Netherlandish tapestry design.
The first Netherlandish painter whose tapestry designs reflect an informed
response to the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance was Bernaert van Orley
(ca. 1492–1541/42). During the 1520s, van Orley forged a new style that
combined elements of the Netherlandish tradition—such as multiple narrative
and complex anecdotal, decorative, and landscape detail —with elements taken
from the Italian cartoons that he saw in Brussels between 1516 and 1530—most
significantly, the visualization of each scene as a realistic presentation of a
moment of physical or emotional drama embodied by lifesize figures acting in
clearly defined perspectival settings. The result was a rich narrative style
ideally suited to the tapestry medium (The Last Supper, 1975.1.1915 ).
During the second quarter of the sixteenth century, the volume of lucrative
commissions from the foremost courts of Europe encouraged even greater
specialization by Brussels cartoonists and weavers, leading to extraordinary
technical and artistic achievements. Patrons and artists responded to the new
potential of the tapestry medium with increasingly ambitious designs that
built upon—and digressed from—the legacies of Raphael and Bernaert van
Orley (The Bridal Chamber of Herse, 41.190.135 ).
Although Brussels continued to dominate large-scale, high-quality
production throughout the first two-thirds of the sixteenth century, and other
Netherlandish centers continued to export large quantities of lower grade
tapestries all over Europe, a number of smaller enterprises were set up
elsewhere in Europe. Documentation indicates that there was a considerable
amount of independent weaving in France during the sixteenth century. From
a commercial point of view, the most successful French workshops were those
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
in Paris, which managed to maintain an independent existence throughout
the first three-quarters of the century, supplying tapestries to the French
crown and nobility. Few works have survived, but the Story of Diana
tapestries ( 42.57.1 ), made for Diane de Poitiers sometime around 1550,
demonstrate the quality and aesthetic of the finest Paris products.
The continuing taste for tapestry among Italian patrons also spurred new
enterprises. Of particular note were the workshops established by Ercole II
d’Este in Ferrara in 1536, where designs by Dosso Dossi and Giulio Romano,
among others, were produced. In 1539, a workshop was also established in
Mantua by Federigo Gonzaga. A number of the weavers involved in these
workshops subsequently relocated to Florence when Cosimo I de’ Medici
established two workshops in 1545. While the output of these workshops was
small in comparison to that of the leading Brussels ateliers, their use of
designs produced by local artists guaranteed that their product was among the
most innovative of the period. Although the workshops in Mantua and
Ferrara were defunct by, respectively, 1563 and 1582, the Florence workshops
continued to provide tapestries for the Medici family and other private
patrons ( 2004.165 ) well into the seventeenth century.
The scale achieved by the Netherlandish tapestry industry by the early 1560s
has never been surpassed. Through its dominance of high-quality production
from the beginning of the sixteenth century, Brussels had attracted an
unprecedented volume of lucrative commissions. Antwerp exercised a similar
command over trade and dispersal. Yet the industry was devastated by the
religious strife and military combat that roiled the Spanish Netherlands
beginning in the 1560s. Religious persecution had cast its shadow over the
Netherlandish industry from the late 1520s. During the 1530s and 1540s,
increasing numbers of Flemish weavers relocated to towns in the Germanic
states that were more tolerant of their beliefs (belatedly introducing a more
representational style of weaving to Germanic tapestry production). The
number of migrants was to increase dramatically during the late 1560s as
Philip II sought to repress the reform movement in the Netherlands. With the
arrival of the duke of Alba and his army in 1568 and the institution of the
Council of Troubles, this exodus turned into a flood as weavers emigrated to
more tolerant regions in the northern Netherlands, the Germanic states,
France, and England, draining the Netherlandish industry of many of the
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
leading artists and weavers. The situation only deteriorated in the following
years, as Alba’s merciless actions launched the Netherlands into civil war.
Many of the leading centers of production were devastated, with dire
consequences for the economy on which high-quality production had
Although production did continue during the late sixteenth century, the
tapestries made during this era are of much lower quality—in design,
execution, and material—than in the previous years. From the last decade of
the century, new centers of importance emerged in Delft, Paris, Munich, and
elsewhere, with the patronage of the European nobility now distributed more
evenly between these competing centers.
Thomas P. Campbell
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 2002
Campbell, Thomas P. “European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600.” In
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2002)
Further Reading
Campbell, Thomas P., et al. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence.
Exhibition catalogue. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. See on MetPublications
Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. Medieval Tapestries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New
York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993. See on MetPublications
Delmarcel, Guy. Flemish Tapestry: From the 15th to the 18th Century. Translated by
Alastair Weir. Tielt, Belgium: Lannoo, 1999.
Joubert, Fabienne, et al. Histoire de la tapisserie en Europe, du Moyen Âge á nos
jours. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.
Turner, Jane, ed. The Dictionary of Art. 34 vols. New York: Grove, 1996.
Additional Essays by Thomas P. Campbell
European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1400–1600 | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Campbell, Thomas P. “European Tapestry Production and Patronage, 1600–1800.” (October
Campbell, Thomas P. “How Medieval and Renaissance Tapestries Were Made.” (February
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