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 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 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 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 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 depended.
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.