Threads of Power: superb tapestry porn

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna has one of the greatest collections of tapestries in the world thanks largely to the Imperial collection of the Hapsburg dynasty. Most of the tapestries are kept in careful storage for conservation purposes and are too delicate to be on public display. Now the museum has placed select rare masterpieces of 16th century Belgian tapestry on display in Threads of Power, an exhibition that explores how the elite used the expense, subject matter and sumptuous materials of tapestry as propaganda tools to broadcast their status and wealth. The 14 tapestries will be on display along with preparatory sketches, cartoons, woodcuts, engravings, etchings, oil paintings on canvas, coins and other artworks associated with the tapestries from July 14th through September 20th, 2015.

With the exception of one tapestry made in the early 1700s from a 16th century design (the tapestry makers kept original cartoons and drawings of their most popular pieces for decades, even centuries, so entire series could be reissued upon request), all of the tapestries were manufactured in Brussels during the 16th century. Influenced by Raphael whose cartoons for Pope Leo X in 1515 ushered in the era of prestigious artists drawing for tapestries, top court artists like Barend van Orley and Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen created the designs that were woven into textiles by the greatest Brussels workshops.

Using precious materials like gold and silver thread, silk and wool, weavers took years to make a single wall hanging. Tapestries were far more expensive than paintings, the exclusive province of the most moneyed nobles and royals. The subjects depicted on these large, luxurious canvases matched the size and importance of the medium. Scenes of royal courts, battles, Biblical stories, mythological figures were idealized versions of the grand personages and who commissioned the works to decorate their walls.

And not just their walls, either. The tapestries were used on state occasions, hung on a dais or as a baldachin over the throne. One of the tapestries in the exhibit, An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, is a 1712-21 reissue of one of 12 tapestries in a series first commissioned in 1546 by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to celebrate his capture of Tunis from the Ottoman Turks 11 years earlier. The Conquest of Tunis series was designed by Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and woven by Willem de Pannemaker’s workshop in Brussels. The contract between Charles and Pannemaker stipulates in detail which materials were to be used: 63 colors of silk from Granada, worsted thread from Lyon, seven kinds of gold thread and three of silver provided directly by Charles V. Charles required that Pannemaker employ seven weavers to work on each tapestry all day. It still took them five years to complete the series for a total cost of 26,000 pounds ($1 million today).

The full series traveled with Charles V and was unfurled at every state occasion and religious ceremony. They were draped in the royal receiving rooms of the Brussels palace and in Madrid’s Alcázar palace under Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain. They were so famous and so well-used that they had to be retired for their own preservation less than a century after they were made and replacements ordered from the original cartoons.

But let’s face, this post is really all about the textile porn. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has been kind enough to provide lovely pictures of some of the tapestries on display at the exhibition. I wish the photos of the complete tapestries are larger (it’s rare that even a high res picture of a monumental piece fully satisfies me), but coupled with extreme close-ups of details, you can get a real sense of the glorious materials and exquisite craftsmanship of Low Country Renaissance tapestries.

Heracles Decapitating the Lernaean Hydra, Tapestry from the series “The Labours of Heracles,” produced under Michiel van Orley, Oudenaarde, c. 1550/65, wool, silk; 418 x 544 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband.

Mercury with the Zodiac Sign “Cancer” (June), Tapestry from the series “The Twelve Months,” produced in Brussels, c. 1560/70, wool silk, metal threads; 419 x 468 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta, Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46, produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721, wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm.Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Tapestry Featuring the Arms of Emperor Charles V, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1540, wool, silk, metal threads; 197 x 273 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Fortitude, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Virtues,” design: Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592), produced under Frans Geubels, Brussels, before 1549, wool, silk, metal; 352 x 469 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Apostle Paul before King Agrippa, Tapestry from the series “Scenes from the Life of the Apostle Paul,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1529/30; produced under Paulus van Oppenem, Brussels, c. 1535, wool, silk, metal; 423 x 453 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Acedia, Tapestry from the series “The Seven Deadly Sins,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), c. 1533/34, produced under Willem de Pannemaker, Brussels, c. 1548/49, wool, silk, metal; 456 x 708 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Vertumnus Approaching Pomona Disguised as a Vintner, Tapestry from the series “Vertumnus and Pomona after Ovid’s Metamorphoses,” design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst (Aalst 1502 – 1550 Brussels), Brussels, c. 1544, produced in Brussels, between c. 1548 and 1575, wool, silk, metal threads; 425 x 503 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

The Triumphal Procession Continued: Displaying Captured Arms and Armour, Tapestry from the series “Deeds and Triumphs of Dom Joao de Castro,” design: c. 1550/57, produced under Bartholomeeus Adriaensz (?), Brussels, after 1557, Wool, silk, metal; 354 x 473 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

Throne Canopy, design: Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527 – c. 1606) and Michiel Coxcie (c. 1499 – 1592, figures), Brussels, c. 1561 (dated), wool, silk, metal threads; back: 419 x 271 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer © KHM-Museumsverband

For more details about the tapestries and related artwork on display, read the exhibition booklet (pdf). Here’s an introductory video from the museum about the show. Keep your eye open for an amazing close-up view of gold metal threads around the 1:40 mark. Click the CC button for English subtitles.

9 thoughts on “Threads of Power: superb tapestry porn

  1. Thank you truly amazing. An altogether unknown artform to me. Puts my Kashan rugs to shame, and on their own they are fantastic forms of art.

  2. Stupid comment as usual, has the number of readers to your superb site dropped to the point of sensationalizing your topics ie the use of the porn word. This must be another over my head example of european humor. Sorry once again for my ignorance. I really enjoy reading just about every word you post. Oh so well thought out vebage. Always so engaging historically significant finds. Thank you

  3. Indeed, those masterpieces are in real life even more impressive, and you really need huge walls for 3×5 meter pieces. Most of them I saw in Brussels, and maybe not all of them were so elaborate as the ones that the Habsburg apparently decided to take with them to Vienna: In some cases, maybe only natural after 500 years, the colors seemed not as powerful as they once might have been.

    Moreover, your post reminded me that, as a kid, one of my favorite radio shows was, when -on Saturday early mornings -6 am, or was it on Sundays ?- an elderly presenter was playing all kinds of secular early renaissance music, completed with verbal lyrics/song topic descriptions. Most of the songs, remarkably, had similar topics as apparently the tapestry had, i.e. tapestry plus the music was possibly what could have enjoyed back then. The radio show was entitled ‘from ancient music note books’.


    P.S.: I found a dutch www radio station, where early music is played. Unfortunately, their program is rather limited: Bach and interpretations from a gentleman by the name of Jordi Savall. The real stuff, unfortunately, seems hard to come by.

  4. if you want to see how the colors looked 500 years ago . download the program (henry VII patron or plunder) ..they use digital light to show what it looked like back in the day

  5. Gorgeous tapestries, and it’s pleasant to see some with iconic creatures other than the famous unicorn. Usually, other creatures only seem to be acknowledged in illuminated manuscripts.

    Off topic for this post, but yet another instance of a monolith being likened to Stonehenge for no other reasons than it is made of stone and pre-historic record:

    Pity that it got crammed into the Stonehenge mould; it seems like the sort of thing that stands on its own as a potentially spectacular feat of engineering.

  6. Tapestry porn indeed! And it shows that the museum mostly keeps these out of sight and takes good care of them because, considering the age of these tapestries, their condition looks great (obviously the colours have changed and faded over time but you often see much worse and there doesn’t seem to be damage to the weave itself).

    The story reminds me: Last year, I visited Stirling Castle in Scotland where a modern day tapestry studio was working on the re-creation of a “Hunt of the Unicorn” (yes, SourceRunner, those creatures again 😉 series which had once belonged to the kings of Scotland. You could see the weavers at work and once a day they explained about it. To speed up the process, they were weaving at a ‘lower resolution’ (fewer threads per inch) than the historical weavers of Flanders and even with that, a weaver could only produce as much as about 2 square inches on a good day. Of course the working hours in Renaissance Brussels may have been longer but modern weavers have the advantage of electrical light and you really can’t do work like this without sufficient light… So it’s no wonder that tapestries took years to make.
    Oh, and tapestries like these are also always woven on their side. This way the warp threads will run sideways in the finished product which helps the tapestry keep its shape over years of hanging (there’s higher tension on the warp than on the weft so weft threads would be slowly pulled down by gravity).
    Tapestry weavers in 16th century Flanders would work slowly and painstakingly with fine thread, on images which were on their side, working on the same piece with several people at a time and they would work from the back of the tapestry. This is one reason why they used full scale cartoons. Every bit of shape and colour had to be planned in advance.

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