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ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

A tapestry is a handwoven textile. It is usually made with heavy threads of several colors. Most tapestries are hung on walls or suspended from ceilings.

The weaving of textile by hand requires much time and a great deal of skill. The weaver is limited by problems that other artists seldom face. He has no canvas to paint, no clay to model, no wood or stone to carve. Given only colored threads, he must manufacture and decorate his textile at the same time. Artists with patience, ability to plan, and skill to weave have always been rare, and tapestries traditionally are very expensive and precious.

In the days when the church and great royal houses ruled the world, tapestries were symbols of wealth. Whenever plays, official ceremonies, or public celebrations were held, tapestries lent beauty and richness to the events. Bishops and kings welcomed important visitors with red carpets flanked by tapestry displays. Religious processions followed routes marked with tapestries.

The Earliest Weavers

In the ancient tombs of Egypt pictures have been found that show weavers making tapestries of linen. Only a few fragments of Egyptian tapestries survive, but the pictures indicate that the art of tapestry weaving is about 5,000 years old.

The Hebrews learned to make tapestries while they were living in either Babylon or Egypt. The Bible mentions this art several times, and other ancient writings refer to tapestry weaving among the people of Syria, Phoenicia, Persia, and India. Famous throughout the ancient Mediterranean world were the textiles that decorated the cities of Tyre and Sidon. These fabrics impressed the Greeks and Romans, who dominated the Mediterranean lands between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500.

During the medieval period Islamic warriors swept across the Middle East. These people developed a unique style of art. Because the Islamic religion was opposed to the reproduction of figures, tapestries were made with forms called arabesques, which are based on Arabic script, geometry, and abstract floral patterns.

Knights of the Crusades returning to Europe brought back an appreciation for many Eastern things. Among these newfound tastes was a delight in tapestries.

Although the returning Crusaders spread a desire for tapestries throughout Europe, an actual knowledge of the craft probably came from the Moors, Islamic people living in Spain. There are legends about tapestry workshops that were operating in southern France as early as the end of the 8th century, long before the Crusades. If these workshops did exist, they must have been operated by or influenced by the Moors.

The first tapestries that we are certain were made in Europe were woven in the workshops of monasteries. As the wealth of princes and merchants grew, so did the demand for more luxury goods. By the 14th century, Paris had become the main city of French tapestry production. From then until the present the history of tapestry has been centered mainly in France and Flanders (now Belgium and northern France).

The Gothic Era: Golden Age of Tapestries

Most early tapestry designs were simple patterns of geometric shapes and the symbols of heraldry. Around 1360, birds and small animals began to be represented more often. Then in less than 10 years most of the important factories began to produce tapestries woven in sets that illustrated religious texts, stories of knighthood, and scenes from contemporary life. Although these tapestries were more naturalistic than work from the previous era, they were still woven in the flat, decorative patterns typical of earlier work.

The Gothic period was a time of great cathedral building. To add color to the stone buildings, artists made beautiful stained-glass windows and hung tapestries. Pictures of biblical scenes awed and educated churchgoers. Tapestries were also useful in sectioning off parts of large churches for special rites and ceremonies and in halting the drafts that flowed through the spacious churches.

The Renaissance

Good tapestries were woven in Italy but under the supervision of Flemish masters. So it was natural that Pope Leo X (1475-1521), deciding that he needed fine tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, should order them from Flanders. Along with the order he sent full-size designs (called cartoons) by the famous artist Raphael. The cartoons were actually paintings in the Renaissance style.

After this the Flemish weavers continued to work from cartoons painted by Italian artists. These artists used the same subjects and techniques as they did in their paintings, employing perspective as well as naturalistic rendering in their work.

Unfortunately, this marriage of Italian art and Flemish craft started a trend that almost ruined tapestry. The Gothic weaver had been free to choose his own colors and designs. Now tapissiers (tapestry weavers) had to make exact copies of Renaissance paintings, employing the technique of perspective. Robbed of its bold patterns and flat figures, tapestry lost much of its strength and uniqueness.

In addition to the decline in artistic quality, technical flaws began to creep in. Many colors came into use that were not chemically sound and quickly lost their brilliance. With the increase in orders for tapestries, speed—not artistry and skill—came to be expected from workers. Unsatisfactory sections were not rewoven, but instead were touched up with paints and dyes.

17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries

In 1662 Colbert, the first minister of Louis XIV of France, started a workshop on Avenue des Gobelins in Paris. It was owned by the government and produced furniture, tapestries, and other decorative products for royalty. The director of the Gobelins looms was the painter-designer Charles Le Brun (1619-90).

Political changes caused the Gobelins workshops to shut down between 1694 and 1697. When they reopened, few of the decorative arts except tapestry resumed production. Art in these years was rapidly moving away from the grand, dramatic style of the previous century. The playful and lightly elegant age of the rococo had arrived. The large wall hangings of Louis XIV's time gave way to much smaller panels, which were better suited to the more intimate rooms of the day.

The French Revolution brought work to a stop at the Gobelins and Beauvais workshops. Napoleon attempted to revive the factories under his personal supervision. He wished to glorify himself in great tapestries. None were completed before the emperor was exiled.

The best 19th-century tapestries were woven in England. The versatile artisan William Morris (1834-96) established a workshop at Merton Abbey in 1881. Morris loved all things medieval. His thorough study of Gothic methods resulted in lively tapestry designs based on Gothic style. After Morris died in 1896, Gothic principles were no longer followed closely.

20th Century: Modern Art

The dramatic designs and bold, simple color schemes of abstract modern art helped bring back a strong decorative feeling in tapestry. In the 20th century there was a return to the principles—but not the style—of Gothic weaving.

The discovery of tapestries that were made by the Indians of Peru also influenced modern weaving. The Indians began making tapestry garments around A.D. 600 or 700. They used many deep colors and geometric abstractions or sets of animal patterns.

Since the late 1940's artists all over the world have been creating tapestries, using various materials and weaving techniques. The Scandinavians (people of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway), who are particularly active in the field, call upon their folk art for inspiration. After centuries of development, tapestry is once again at the forefront of the decorative arts.

Richard W. Ireland
Maryland Institute College of Art

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