The Beauty & Mystery of Medieval Tapestries

Woven tapestries date as far back as the times of ancient Egypt, and the most famous series of medieval tapestries is probably The Lady and the Unicorn [c. 1460]. This mysterious series of tapestries has each piece representing one of the five senses (taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch), as well as the elusive sixth sense or concept titled only as À mon seul désir. These tapestries’ precise meaning remains unclear, and the same theme can also be seen in the series of paintings by Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens‘ titled The Five Senses [1617-18]. While some medieval tapestries focus on scenes from the lives of nobility, including royal hunting and tournaments, others centre on everyday life, religious themes and landscapes. Below are four tapestries from the Middle Ages which are as beautiful as they are enigmatic.

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden/The Unicorn in Captivity (the Unicorn Tapestries) [1495 – 1505]

Woven from a French design in either Belgium or the Netherlands, the so-called “Unicorn Tapestries” are a series of tapestries that are often considered to be the most beautiful and enigmatic of all arts that survived to us from the Middle Ages. The tapestry on the right shows a unicorn in captivity, and is probably a part of this series of six other woven artworks that all show the entrapment of a mythical animal – the magical unicorn.

As part of other “Unicorn” tapestries, The Unicorn in Captivity represents the culmination of an arduous work – the sighting, the taming and the capture of the animal that ancient sources say could only be tamed by a virgin. Thus, the tapestries show the hunting for and the trapping of this magnificent animal by various huntsmen. However, the precise symbolic meaning of the tapestries still eludes historians and critics who point out this or that mysterious detail in the tapestries, discuss the various sequences in which the tapestries could be presented and their mysterious origin, and, generally, debate their multiple interpretations. Interpretations that rely on pagan and Christian symbolism, as well as on alchemy (“unseen forces finally seen and conquered”) were all proposed. Moreover, those who believe that The Unicorn in Captivity is a standalone tapestry say that the artwork may simply symbolise “the desire finally tamed”, one’s beloved finally “captured in the nets of his or her lover’s charm”, an allegory of “love being triumphant” and “a subject of affection conquered”. Those who favour the latter interpretation point out that the unicorn seems to be at peace and even content in its confinement (the fence is not high and the animal may escape since it is not securely chained to the tree). Also, the presence of “ripe pomegranates” on the tree pictured may symbolise both marriage and fertility. The tapestry can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.

Medieval Brussels (The Hunts of Maximilian series) [c. 1533]

This tapestry is part of the series of medieval tapestries titled The Hunts of Maximilian which show scenes of hunting taking place in the Sonian Forest (Forêt de Soignes), south of Brussels, Belgium. Woven in Brussels and designed by Bernard Van Orley [1471-1541], the subjects in this series of tapestries are people from the court of Maximilian I, King of the Romans [1486 – 1508]. Each tapestry in the series represents one of twelve months (signs of the zodiac) and Medieval Brussels above represents the month of March. There are cavaliers in this artwork hunting for birds. In the foreground, there is a rider clad in red velvet, but the attention is also drawn to the view of ancient Brussels. In particular, the tapestry shows the Palace of Coudenberg (on the left in the painting), a magnificent building, which was the seat of counts and dukes for nearly 700 years. The palace was destroyed by fire in 1731. The entire The Hunts of Maximilian series can be seen at the Louvre in Paris, France.

Hunters in a Landscape [1575–95]

This is another beautiful tapestry which, as the one directly above, shows huntsmen hunting in the vicinity of a grand manor house positioned in the centre and surrounded by water. As Medieval Brussels, it was completed by unknown Flemish weavers in (what became known as) an “English” style. The tapestry distinguishes itself by its rich colours and intricate details of the fauna and flora. The house in the centre of the painting gives the feeling of symmetry and order, (as contrasted by the nature’s “chaotic” abundance in the foreground) and was inspired by a woodcut representing King Solomon’s Palace made by Jost Amman, a Swiss artist. Hunters in a Landscape is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.

The Triumph of Fame (The Triumphs series) [c. 1502 – 4]

In this tapestry, triumphant “Fame reads at a lectern“, being surrounded by poets and writers whose work will never be forgotten. Fame is seen trampling the three Fates who are beneath her. This vivid-in-colour tapestry is one in the series of six others that represent the triumphs (trionfi) which Petrarch [1304 – 1374] wrote about in the mid-14th century poem. His poem was all about “the practice of virtue, the rejection of evil and a meditation on death“. Other allegorical tapestries in this series are the triumph of Love, of Chastity over Love, of Death over Chastity, of Fame over Death, of Time over Fame, and of Religion over Time. For example, one version of The Triumph of Fame over Death [1500 – 1530] shows a chariot ridden by a winged figure symbolising Fame. The chariot is pulled by two elephants who stand on top of a female figure that, in turn, represents Death. The Triumph of Fame is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, NY, US.

7 thoughts on “The Beauty & Mystery of Medieval Tapestries

  1. Thanks for your post on these fabulous tapestries. I’ve seen the six unicorn tapestries at the Cluny Museum in Paris (currently closed not only because of Corona, but also for renovation until 2022).
    Also, I once had the privilege of seeing the ‘Hunts of Maximilian’ tapestries in the Louvre with a Belgian friend who was an amazing art expert. But I really started appreciating tapestries when I took a tour of the Gobelin Manufactory in Paris, where they still make tapestries by hand using the traditional methods from four centuries ago. https://operasandcycling.com/how-they-make-the-gobelin-tapestries/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is so great that you’ve seen medieval tapestries in both the Louvre and Cluny! I really want to see the medieval tapestries at the Cluny one day. Even though I have been to Paris quite a number of times, I never visited this museum. And, thanks very much for this link to the gobelin factory. As with the Balzac place, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to visit it in Paris, but now I am very curious to do so!

      Liked by 1 person

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