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Medieval Tapestry Designs
The Medieval period of history saw the blossoming of tapestry design into maturity. The Dark Ages was characterised by simple designs of animals and birds, whereas the Middle Ages saw real art, design and beauty emerge in detail. Many designs and cartoons created at that time have retained a timeless popularity and remain in vogue even today.
The Detail And The Timeless Nature Of Medieval Tapestry
With the emergence of more detailed tapestry design the religious themes proved very popular. Used by churches to impart messages to the illiterate poor these wall hangings were exquisite masterpieces in themselves. Often featuring popular religious figures such as Christ, the Virgin Mary these were often shown in contemporary costume and with an imaginative perspective. Faces tended towards stern and serious expressions. Perspective developed through the Middle Ages as weavers with limited drawing skills developed artistic ability and detail.
As the Renaissance developed and the Medieval Period advanced a more scenic and secular view emerged in tapestry design. Some are quite spectacular, capturing life as it was at that time. The scenes were often crowded with adults, children were rarely seen. Features of daily life were depicted such as wine making, falconry and ladies sewing. Other subject matter included in a tapestry were mythological creatures and characters and nature itself in a burst of verdure. The crowding of scenes featured heavily with animals, buildings, people all crammed in. The War of Troy by Tournai designer Pasquier Grenier for example, is completely filled with people and vividly portrays the chaos and drama of the battlefield. Like a battlefield, when looking at the tapestry it is hard to know where to look first and who is friend or foe. Often the person commissioning the work would find themselves depicted as a character in the tapestry. It was almost as if a vibrant energy spun through these exquisite masterpieces sweeping life itself into their portrayal and forming a discussion piece in a palace or stately home.
Animals were popular in medieval designs and were usually dogs, horses and other domestic species. Sometimes mythological creatures such as the unicorn would feature in tapestry design. The Lady and the Unicorn Panels, now displayed in the Cluny Museum and used to portray the senses are a classical example of medieval work and the intertwining of mythology. A further example of late medieval tapestry is the Unicorn Tapestries which are delicate yet dramatic in design and thought to be an allegorical representation of the capture and death of Christ. With detailed floral decoration and mille fleurs these two series are classical examples of medieval design that have retained their popularity in the modern world and also demonstrate the skills and abilities of weavers in Europe at that time.
In the Middle Ages earth tones and plants were used for colour. Three plants were known in Europe in the dyeing of material. These were woad, madder and weld. Madder produced red colouring, weld a yellow colour and woad is known for its blue tincture. When mixed these primary colours formed others in the palette. The three primary colours were used in the Lady and Unicorn Tapestries. Colours that required grinding from stone such as purple were rarely used due to the expense. As craftsmen discovered the potential of mass production the colouring and material were adapted to reflect profits such as eliminating gold and silver material. Borders were popular and often decorated with flora and fauna or with a band telling the story in the tableau. Sometimes the arms of a lord would be incorporated in to the border as a frame. As the craft developed proportion became more accurate and shadows and anatomical structure more precise in the tapestry.
A Timeless Legacy
Many of the classical styles and designs created in Medieval times have retained their popularity in the modern world. Scenes of country life and wine making, of battles and legends have retained their appeal. Unicorns continue to delight with their mystical nature and the classical designs from the Middle Ages have lasted. Le Bain with its mille fleur background is a well known Medieval tapestry that can still be found as a wall hanging for the stylish modern home. Medieval weavers created a legacy in their tapestry design which portrays daily life as well as form an imagined existence through legend. The appeal of classical figures as metaphor for the senses or as warriors continues to fire an admiration for tapestry which has retained its appeal through time.
Angela Dawson-Field writes extensively on home decor and Medieval tapestries . She divides her time between family and The Tapestry House.