The Case of the Missing Lady

tapestry restorationBoth sets of Unicorn Tapestries have sustained damages over the years and undergone several rounds of restoration.  Some frayed and missing elements can be replaced with relative confidence, such as mille fleur backgrounds or parts of trees and gowns.  But others are impossible to replicate in the face of lost cartoons (original design) and no documentation in full detail of the original content.

This is especially true for the fragment panel in the “Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series.  We know that the central lady is seated with the unicorn’s forelegs on her lap, lady betrays unicornbut all that remains of her is part of one arm and her fingers in the beast’s mane.  Her sleeve is of a golden and fawn brocade, slightly belled in shape (not unlike the sleeve cut of the lady in red velvet betraying the unicorn to the hunter in the trees).

Who would this missing lady have been and what would she have looked like?  There are several different ways to look for clues, as well as methods other interpretive artists have utilized.

For example, when first researching into the two Unicorn Tapestry sets, it appeared that “The Lady and the Unicorn” was likely woven slightly earlier in time than “The Hunt of the Unicorn”–possibly as disparate at 1480 for the first and 1515 for the second.  The bright red background with mille fleur patterning and the subjects seated on an island seemed of a more medieval fashion, while the early use of perspective and a naturalistic landscape as shown in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries would appear to put their production at a slightly later date.

But the lines between the Medieval and Renaissance period is a blurred and fuzzy transition.  More recent scholarship about the Unicorn Tapestries (especially with regards to tracing the striking and dominant heraldry in The Lady and the Unicorn set) has pressed the theoretical “make date” of these to sets close together.  It certainly may be that the Flemish studios were producing both the mille fleur style and the scenic style at the same time, dependent on the tastes and requests of the nobles ordering the commissioned work.

This pairs well with the fact that two of the “Hunt” series (noticeably woven at a different studio) use the mille fleur background.  Perhaps some studios specialized in the older style while others were branching into the new territory of scenic work.  But I would not be surprised at all if simultaneous production of the different styles occurred–essentially, “If you want to pay for a tapestry, we’ll weave what you want.”  Commercial production based on commission still works that way.

lady and unicornSo, if the two sets do share a closely linked date, then the expression of mythology in pictorial form (here the taming of the unicorn by the maiden) would be culturally very similar.  In “The Lady and the Unicorn:  Sight,” we can see the exact (though mirrored) arm and similar finger position of the lady with regards to the unicorn on her lap.  However, I would caution as to any further reproduction of the pose with regards to the mirror.  “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries are aesthetically representing the senses–hence the use of a mirror to denote sight.

I have not seen in any other medieval or Renaissance art the use of a mirror in luring the unicorn into submission.  The lure of the mirror (or a reflection in water) is common to the story of Narcissus, not the unicorn.  For this chimera, the lure is the maiden, not a reflection.  Notice also that in the “Hunt” panel, the unicorn is looking up, towards the missing lady’s face.  The unicorn in the “Lady” panel is looking down, towards the mirror.

However, since the “Lady” series is so compelling and a known contemporary representation, this has made its way into replica interpretations, including the set woven by West Dean for sterling castle tapestry detail
Historic Scotland and Sterling Castle.  The question of what to do with the second hand remained, which may be why they left it half off the edge of the piece.  The lady has other clear links with the Cluny set, including the watered silk underskirt, the decoration at the shoulders, and the snood-like hair covering, while her low-looping necklace is of the Cloisters set.  It’s an interesting combination of the two in an effort to recreate that which has been lost.

In this replica set, designed to replace the lost “History of the Unicorn” series once housed at Sterling Castle (wish I knew what that set looked like!), they’ve decided to interpret the lady’s brocade gown as red and gold.  However, the original shows a more tawny brown color, similar to the gown of the leading lady in the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle.”unicorn is killed and brought to the castle

Because of the link in color and pattern between the leading lady and the beguiling maiden’s gowns, some believe it to be the same character.  This plays into the Anne of Brittany theory, but considering that the lady and seigneur are linked in arm (along with her choice in headdress), it would appear that they are a married couple, which would negate the beguiling maiden status.

The only way it would symbolically work for the lady in the castle panel to also be the lady in the beguiling panel is that this is a marriage celebration piece, symbolizing the pursuit and capture of the bride by the man, where they are then shown wed beside the slain unicorn.  But that seems to put the story backwards of the unicorn being beguiled by the maiden and brought back to show off to the man.  Also, the lady is fingering her rosary and other strong symbolic elements (including inscriptions on hunting horns, the oak sprouting thorns around the unicorn’s neck, etc.) link the unicorn with the story of Christ’s sacrifice.

Yikes!  All these pieces together can seem to muddle the quest for the missing lady, but it is also quite classic of medieval allegory.  The further you drill into the story, the more there is to find!

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Fair Annie: Pretty as a Liability

david and bathsheba detailThe cultural desire for women to be forever young and fair comes at a price, especially when a couple faces a mid-life crisis.  The man (who was distinctly the more powerful of the two) might decide to find a way to cast off the old wife for someone new and younger.  This certainly is a main theme in the life of Henry VIII!

This is also displayed in the ballad “Fair Annie” (Child 62), which traces its lineage back to 1200 when Marie de France told a tale of two twin girls in Lai del Freisne.  In “Fair Annie,” the bride who has born six children and is carrying the seventh is told to pretend to be a maiden again because her husband (Lord Thomas) is off to fetch a new bride.  Though she protests, she must obey.

Perhaps after six births and yet another pregnancy, Annie is not the flower she once was.  Perhaps Lord Thomas no longer finds her as pleasurable or exciting.  Either way, the lure of a young and beautiful maiden convinces him to cast off his wife.

In complete despair at the situation, Annie turns to music (her flute) to console herself.  The new bride recognizes the tune and asks the woman her lineage–only to discover that they are sisters!  Oh uh, not a smart move there Lord Thomas.  He’ll have his due!

While many variations exist, I learned this version from Maggie Boyle and Steve Tilston.

Fair Annie

“Comb back your hair, Fair Annie,” he said.
“Comb it back into your crown.
You must lead a maiden’s life,
When I bring the new bride home.”

“Oh how can I look maiden-like,
when a maiden I am none;
Six fair sons have I borne by you,
And the seventh coming on.”

“Oh you shall bake my bread,” he said.
“Oh and you shall keep my home;
And you shall welcome my lady gay
When I bring the new bride home.”

And over the door he’s hung a silken towel,
Pierced by a silver pin;
That Fair Annie she might wipe her eyes,
As she’s gang out and in.

Well six months gone and nine coming on,
She thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a spyglass in her hand,
And up to the tower she has run.

She has looked east, she has looked west,
She looked all under the sun;
And who should she see but Lord Thomas,
A-bringing of his bride all home.

And she has called on her seven sons,
By one by two by three;
And she said unto her eldest son,
“Come and tell me what you see.”

He has looked east, he has looked west,
He looked all under the sun;
And who should he see but his father dear,
A-bringing of his new bride home.

“Oh shall I dress in green?” she said,
“Or shall I dress in black?
Or shall I cast me o’er the high cliffs,
And send my soul to wrack?”

“Oh you need not dress in green,” he said,
“Nor ye needn’t dress in black;
But go fling wide the great hall doors,
And welcome my father back.”

“Well-come, well-come, Lord Thomas,” she said,
“You are welcome unto me.
Well-come, well-come to your merry men all,
That you’ve brought across the sea.”

And she served them with the best of wine,
Yes she served them up and down;
But she drank water from the well
For to keep her spirits down.

She served them the live-long day,
‘Til she thought the time wore long;
So she’s taken a flute all in her hand
And up to the tower she has run.

She has fluted east, she has fluted west,
She fluted loud and shrill.
She wished that her sons were seven greyhounds
And her a wolf on the hill.

“Come down, come down,” the new bride said,
“Come down unto me.
Tell me the name of your father dear,
And I’ll tell mine to thee.”

“Well King Douglas was my father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is my mother;
And Sweet Marie is my sister dear,
And Prince Henry is my brother.”

“Well if King Douglas was your father’s name,
And Queen Chatten is your mother;
Then I’m sure that I am your sister dear,
As Prince Henry is our brother.

“And I have seven ships that sail the sea,
They are loaded to the brim.
Six of them shall I give to you,
And the seventh for to carry me home.

“Six of them shall I give to you,
Once we’ve Lord Thomas hung.”

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Belle Femme: Beauty, Transition, and the Dawn of the 16th Century

lady in burgundian gown

What makes a woman beautiful?  The answer to this can certainly be quite different across cultures and eras.  Here I’ll explore the changing standards of female beauty and dress during that interesting cusp between the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Fashions certainly had their roller coaster ride across the medieval period.  Waists were loose, then fitted, here low, there high.  Sleeves were tight with a myriad of buttons in a row, then sleeves were great draping bells cut in leafy hem shapes.  Headdresses of a variety of styles came an went, including towering hennin veils supported by wires that required castle doorways to be modified to allow the fashionable ladies to pass from room to room.

A medieval lady’s silhouette, however, was allowed to remain fairly flexible.  Most gowns could accommodation pregnancies without too much modification.  Comfortable tunic styles gave way to the copiously roomy houppelande, the paneled kirtle, and eventually the high-waisted Burgundian style of gown.  Many of these styles showed off the desirably graceful neck.  In fact, swan-like movements were favored for ladies throughout the medieval period.15th century lady

Another aspect of interest is the treatment of hair.  During the late medieval period, women’s hair all but disappears (expect in Italy, but they certainly had their own sense of fashionable taste during the 15th Century).  A high forehead was deemed especially beautiful, and women and girls not naturally endowed with this characteristic plucked their foreheads (sometimes burning the follicles with hot pins to keep them from regrowing) to achieve the almost baby-like bald forehead.

The remaining hair was kept carefully coiled up in the hennin.  Eyebrows were also preferred as thin and arched, and moles or discolorations of any kinds were abhorred as “devil’s marks” and were either treated by the lady on her own skin or at least edited out of any portraits made of her.  Woe to the freckle-faced redhead!  While makeup was socially discouraged, it was used by upper-class women.  However, one of the base ingredients was lead, which created many adverse health effects.

marie of burgundyAs styles changed near the turn of the century, several notable transitions occurred.  First, women’s hair began to reappear, both around the face and, sometimes, out the back as in this portrait.  Hair framing the face and even wrapping around the head in braids or coils is strongly featured in the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries.  Whether this is influenced by an “Oriental” style as sometimes mentioned (Turkish?) or the Italian love of showing off the lady’s hair during this time is not perfectly traceable.

The second major aspect of change in fashion for the beautiful lady is the transition away from a high waist and accentuated bosom to a natural or even low waist and flat front.  The scoop or plunging V neckline gives was almost exclusively to the square or W shape.  The languid, swan-like stance is supplanted by a definitely straight torso and spine.  This would continue on through the Tudor reign (and beyond), going to major extremes including deeply V-ed waistlines and boned corseting during Elizabeth I’s reign.

mary tudor black dressThe stiffened bodice first appears during this historic transition, with a round, natural waistline.  The corset had not yet made its appearance, but according to The Tudor Taylor (see Bibliography), both gown and the under-dress (called a kirtle) were stiffened with an interlining of “canvass.”  Laced or hooked snugly, this style not only offered the lady support in a pre-brassier era but also created the flattened, squarish silhouette that is so classic of the Tudor appearance.

As the period progressed, the shoulder line grows wider and wider, to the point where it seems a wonder that a lady’s sleeves might stay on at all.  Sleeves also change in shape from straight and narrow in the previous style to wide bells and eventually decorative false sleeves beneath that puffed out the broad sleeve of the gown.  A hooped underskirt known as a “Farthingale” makes its appearance along with these fancy sleeves, creating a defined, stiffened, conical look to a lady’s figure.  The emphasis became an upright posture, though the accentuation of a long and graceful neck was still maintained until the arrival of the stiffened ruff, when the lady’s neck could disappear entirely.

lady and unicornIn the Unicorn Tapestries, we find these styles and elements of a lady’s beauty frozen somewhere between one era and the next.  Likely woven right at the transition of the century, they too are a statement of fashion in flux.  It’s no longer a Burgundian style, nor is it a full-blown Henry VIII appearance.  Like so many other aspects of these unique tapestries, they lie somewhere in between–a point so fleeting it’s a wonder that it was even captured at all.

Some statements about the cultural views on feminine beauty at the time are clearly showcased in the tapestries.  Here are some highlights:

(1) Preference for a slender, mostly straight figure, with tight bodice accentuating the waist whilst de-emphasizing the bosom.  This includes very slender arms accentuated by tight sleeves, at least from shoulder to elbow.

(2) Preference for fair hair.  While portraits include ladies with dark hair, all of the women in the Unicorn Tapestries with showing hair are blond.  A few have their hair obscured by their bonnets (hoods), belying their matronly status.  I have yet to find reference that unicorn prefer blonds, so this is likely a cultural instead of myth-oriented statement.lady betrays unicorn

(3) Despite all of the talk of “rosy cheeks and ruby lips” in contemporary literature and ballad culture, all of these ladies are quite pale.  Lips are only lightly distinguishable from the face, with very little coloring in the cheeks (if any).  This is paralleled in contemporary portraiture and information about whitening cosmetic use.  The cultural desire for light hair but also pale skin proved a conundrum for some Italian ladies, who are documented to have worn a broad straw brim–pulling their hair out the top to be bleached by the sun while protecting their face and neck below.  Ah yes, the demands of fashion!

(4) Face, neck, upper chest, and hands are the only skin appropriate to be shown in public.  No arms, no legs, period.  While working class women (who are often shown as short, pudgy, buxom, and stout-armed) were depicted as having their sleeves rolled up and their skirts hitched out of the way of their task, this was not a habit afforded to ladies of high degree.  Decorum put show of fabrics over show of skin.

(5) Eye color is not restricted to light colors.  Ladies are shown with blue and brown eyes, so the “blond-haired, blue-eyed” fetish does not appear to be fully planted at this time.  More light eyes appear in “The Lady and the Unicorn” than “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, but then there are more ladies shown in the first set than the remaining pieces of the second.

(6) Eyelids are an important part of decorum.  Today, we live in a world where eyelids and eyelashes are darkened, to make the eyes look larger.  In late medieval art, having a downcast gaze was considered demure and desirable for ladies.

(7) Gold and jewels are a must.  A beautiful lady does not appear without them (unless she is Venus represented in the nude…and even then she might be afforded a necklace).  A lady’s gold and jewels are essential accessories to her beauty and wealth, adorning her neck, gown, hem, headdress, cuffs, seams, belt, hair, and often fingers.  It is interesting, however, that rings play no role in the Unicorn Tapestries.  No one is wearing them!

lady and unicorn sound(8) The “C” posture has not entirely given way to the straight stature.  Curving the lower back so that the hips are forward is still indicated, offering a somewhat reclining look.  This was considered to be part of a noble lady’s indication of a demure and refined etiquette.  A reclined stance is somewhat off-balanced and therefore non-threatening.  When in the “C” posture, the head is most often tipped forward as well.  Servants (who are more active) do not always affect this same stance.

These are just a few of the interesting bits that can be learned when studying the representation of feminine beauty in art at the crossover from 15th to 16th Century.  More on how the continuation of this trend affected women and fashion will be offered in a later post.


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Willie O’ Winsbury

couple courting in tapestryDocumented as Child Ballad #100, with many variants, this border ballad has strong Scottish roots.  Through my research, I found Winsbury to have been a Scottish clan name, though I could not find an actual location (like a town or castle with the name Winsbury).  If you know more about the Winbsury story, I would love to hear about it!

The earliest record of the lyrics trace back to 1775, and there is some speculation that it may be connected with Scottish King James V and his courtship of Madeliene de Valois of France, but it’s entirely possible that the song is much older.  The use of stock verses and repeating phrases are certainly drawn from the 15th Century border ballad tradition.

The version I learned was inspired by John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee and is included in my album “Bardic Memories.”

Willie O’ Winsbury

The king has been a prisoner,
And a pris’ner long in Spain;
And Willie of the Winsbury,
Has lain long with his daughter at home.

“What ails you, what ails you my daughter Janet,
Why you look so pale and wan.
Oh have you had any sore sickness,
Or yet been a-sleepin’ with a man?”

“Oh I have not had any sore sickness,
Nor yet been a-sleepin’ with a man;
But it was for you my father dear,
For biding so long in Spain.”

“Cast off, cast off your berry brown gown,
You stand naked upon the stone;
That I may know you by your shape,
Whether you be a maiden or no.”

And she’s cast off her berry brown gown,
She stood naked upon the stone.
Her apron was low and her haunches were round,
Her face was pale and wan.

“Oh was it with a lord or a duke or a knight,
Or a man of birth and fame?
Or was it with one of my serving men,
That’s lately come out of Spain?”

“No it wasn’t with a lord nor a duke nor a knight,
Nor a many of birth and fame;
But it was with Willie of Winsbury,
I could bide no longer a lone.”

And the king he has called on his merry men all,
By thirty and by three;
Saying “Fetch me this Willie of Winsbury,
For hanged he shall be!”

But when he was brought the king before,
He was clad all in the red silk;
His hair was like the strands of gold,
His skin was as white as the milk.

“And it is no wonder” said the king,
“That my daughter’s love you did win;
For if I was a woman as I am a man,
My bedfellow ye would have been.

“And will you marry my daughter Janet,
By the truth of your right hand?
And will you marry my daughter Janet,
I’ll make you the lord of my land.”

“Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
By the truth of my right hand.
Oh yes I will marry your daughter Janet,
But I’ll not be the lord of your land.”

And he’s mounted her on a milk-white steed,
And himself on a dapple gray;
And he’s made her the lady of as much land,
As she could ride o’er a long summer’s day.

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Tapestry Gown: Fabrics on Display

devonshire tapestry detailI was intrigued by the lustrous gowns displayed in tapestry, not only from the weaver’s perspective but also from the costumer’s perspective.  I started by choosing an era somewhat earlier than the Unicorn Tapestries (mid 1400’s), where fashion is shown quite resplendently in the “Devonshire Hunting Tapestries.”

In this period, the waist was high, with long, draping lines especially in vogue.  Pleats are caught up at the waist, a train extends out the back, and a lovely underskirt is shown when the front of the gown is “caught up” under the wearer’s arm.

For my music performance work, I like to wear gowns in the styles of the eras I’m representing to help facilitate the audience’s transportation through time to another way of knowing.  For this particular project, I was interested in creating a gown that would look as if it had walked out of a tapestry, hence its name of “the Tapestry Gown.”

gown with henin engravingPulling from a variety of visual resources, which can all be referenced in the bibliography page, I searched for ideas.  The elegance of lines, the variety of forms, and sumptuous colors, all make modern dress look rather boring!  Another aspect that struck me when researching the Tapestry Gown was considering how every thread in the fabrics was spun by hand, then woven by hand, then cut by hand, then sewn by hand.  The number of hours in any one dress must have been astronomical!  No wonder being able to afford a hem that drug on the ground (and therefore required someone to wash or brush it and periodic replacement) was an outright flaunting of that person’s wealth.

I, however, do not have such wealth to flaunt, so I gave myself the challenge of utilizing all repurposed fabrics for the project.  A set of damask curtains became the over-gown, a weave-patterned tablecloth the under-gown,tapestry gown sketch a velvet dress the collar and cuffs, and an upholstery swatch for the busk and belt.  Atop, a shortened hennin (made from remnants of the aforementioned fabrics plus a sheer shower curtain) offers an appropriate finish for that classic “C” curve in a courtly lady’s silhouette.

Here, my sketch illustrates the desired look of the finished gown.  Ever since I became interested in historic dress as a young teenager, it seemed that I was ahead of my time in pattern availability.  A few years after strenuous research and effort towards a particular recreation of an American Civil War era gown, patterns seemed to be available everywhere!  And so it was the same with this project.  Probably, in a few years, Simplicity will come out with a peculiarly similar design in commercial availability.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all!

Ah, but there’s nothing quite like the chase, and so it began.  Patterns for Theatrical Costumes by Katherine Strand Holkeboer proved a most useful resource for the project, which involved my first foray into drafting patterns.  This proved to be considerably more complex and detailed than I had first imagined!  paper pattern on dress formThis was especially so due to the great number of compound curves in the layout.  In the end, after drafting the design onto copious quantities of pink tissue paper (it’s what I had), I then finessed the curves and fit on a mannequin dress form.

Here you can see the busk, overlayed with the plunging V-neck collar, the half bodice, the inset sleeve, and the pleated skirt with its long train at the back.  The collar especially needed curvature adjustments for flow.  I wanted to be certain that I was making accurate cuts to the final fabrics–especially the velvet knit, which wriggles about like during cutting like a wayward sponge.  In the end, I had to tack that velvet firmly to the lining in order to quell its tempestuousness.  Good thing it was only collars and cuffs!

This style of gown was designed before the use of the corset–that most constricting undergarment.  It highlights the natural curvature of the breast and offers elegant, sweeping lines at the shoulders.  But that plunging neckline could be indecently revealing, so the stiffened gown bodice progress“busk” at the front is most necessary.  I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that this is the first presentation of a stiffened front panel in lady’s fashionable dress.  The desire for a decorative, stiffened front would continue as the waistline dropped–causing the need for a firm foundation for tight tailoring.  But that discussion will be explored in another post.

The skirt for the gown is cut in two large panels and required creative seaming to accommodate because my fabric was neither as wide nor long as the pattern dictated.  It turns out that piecing was also necessary even for the wealthy in medieval and Renaissance times because fabrics were woven only so wide (sometimes as narrow as 22 inches), which I suspect is directly linked to the complexity of the pattern-work in the fabrics.  finished tapestry gownThe invention of the mechanized pattern detail of the Jacquard loom (see the post “High Warp Tapestry Looms” for a fuller description) would allow for much wider fabrics of the damask and brocade style, but this invention was hundreds of years off from the 15th Century.

Piecing aside, the draping did turn out quite elegant.  That copious skirt, along with the underskirt, helped me appreciate the speed I had developed over the years at hand hemming!  The combination of rich mayberry, deep blue, and gold accents really sets this gown into the realm of dress in tapestry.  The gold and soft pink jewelry I had shipped from India for playing Tuptim in “The King and I” paired very nicely as well, adding some sparkle–including an adornment on the front of the hennin where a decorative pull tab was often present.  These headdresses can be rather weighted towards the back and sometimes need a little help staying in place.

While not practical for outdoor strolling performances (due to the long hem and train), I’ve had some occasions for utilizing the Tapestry Gown.  One of these included a performance of the ballad “Willie O’ Winsbury” at the Northland Storytelling Network’s gown in performanceannual convention, where I was also presenting my graduate school practicum seminar on orality.

In this ballad, the king returns from imprisonment (likely after a crusade) to find his unmarried daughter pregnant.  After making her confess the name of her lover, a search is warranted for his arrest and death.  But upon being brought to the castle, the young man’s beauty surprises even the king, and marriage to the princess is proposed (with the added bait of a land grant).  Willie says he will gladly marry the princess (Janet) but has no interest in the king’s land, instead taking her back to his own large tracts.  I’ll include the lyrics in a subsequent post because they are both vivid and lilting in nature–a snapshot into the human condition.  Ladies, she lost her unicorn, but she kept her lover.

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Second Study–Fabrics

lady and unicorn velvet detailMy second study when preparing for the “Deceiving the Hunters” tapestry project focused on the representation of different kinds of cloth as draped on the human figure.  Because so many tapestries of this era depict human figures, and most of these figures are sumptuously dressed in the fashions of their day, working realistic textiles in tapestry became an important skill for weavers.

In fact, portions of different fabrics were kept at tapestry studios so that weavers could drape and shape them, looking at how the light accented the edges of velvet or the sheen on cloth-of-gold brocade, or the folds in linen or worsted wool.  This allowed the artists to create a sense of realism in their interpretation of the design cartoon before the days of photographs.

Linens could be woven quite fine, including very expensive cloth that was practically translucent.  This, I would think, would be the most challenging fabric of all to mimic in tapestry because you are showing two layers at once, while using a medium that is nearly two-dimensional and worked linearly (you can’t go back over an area of finished tapestry and add more weft, as an oil painter can lay down many layers of color on top of each other).

taste dress detailBrocades, damask, and watered silks offer the challenge of showing patterns on fabric once draped over the human form (including over wrinkles and across seams), which the Unicorn Tapestries work with great skill.  We can see pattern, sheen, the three-dimensionality of the wearer, seams, folds, and the overlay of adornment.  This poses quite a skills challenge!

Other than hands and faces, though, the predominating component of the people represented in tapestry is their clothing.  It’s not to be taken lightly!  Garments not only state fashion, but also status, wealth, marriageability, rank, and personal taste.  More on that in a later post.  Actually, it may take more than one post to tackle that subject!

man's sleeve detailFor my study, I knew that the lady in the scene would be wearing velvet and fine linen/silk, so I chose a detail from the “Hunt of the Unicorn Tapestries” again as a point of focus.  I found a combination of finer-woven under-sleeve showing through the slash in a velvet tunic of one of the hunters in the series.  If offered plenty of folds to work with!

Velvet as a fabric is woven with a pile that is then shorn, so it’s dense with many tiny ends sticking up (like a tiny carpet).  Therefore, when the fabric is folded, those ends spread out, catching the light individually.  This would mean no escaping crosshatching shading technique (compared with the verdure exercise).  Also, I needed to make the shading and textural transitions using only three colors.  The under-sleeve, by comparison, needed to look smooth, with a sense of sheen in the shading.  The challenge was on!

study 2 partway completeBecause I had not yet officially decided to work the final tapestry sideways (I think doing the studies clenched that realization), this study was also woven from bottom to top.  To experiment, I worked the velvet using three colors of wool, while making the under-sleeve out of alpaca.  The two have a very different visual texture, and it really does make a statement in appearance when viewed up close.

One thing that I did learn is that my original color choice for the velvet was too purple and cherry.  I would need to find a different mix to create the right palate for the final piece.  This is part of the value of working studies!  I also learned that because of the tediousness of the crosshatch shading technique required, it was not always possible to work the garment in hills and valleys.  Often, I was weaving across a larger area with multiple butterflies back and forth (here using needles as well because the study loom was so small), using technique that in Navajo textiles is employed for working diagonals.

finished studyThis study took considerably more time than the verdure study, in part because of the demands of the shading.  As the sleeve progressed, however, I felt that I was growing more confident with the technique for both the linen/silk and the velvet.  For the under-sleeve, I opted to use no crosshatch shading, instead having the defined lines differentiate the representation of cloth from the “fuzzy” look of the velvet.  Again, the study was not trying to be a copy of the original–it’s my own piece and technique inspired by the original, which is a completely different intent.

I was still convinced that I needed different colors for the lady’s gown and, of course, the variegated background would not be in the final piece.  It was simply a choice in yarn to build the sleeve against that would not be distracting from the study’s intent.  The little bit of sword hilt peeking in from the side added an element of fun and mystery–you have to look at the original to know what it is!

studies on displayJust like the verdure study, I decided to leave the top unfinished as a teaching tool.  These were displayed (along with miniature images from the originals and the line drawing of the full cartoon) during a showcase at a Goddard residency for my MFA program.  It was exciting to share the studies with other art students and talk about the research for the piece.

That is when I first saw people’s fascination with the studies as their own interestingly aesthetic works (which has been echoed by comments from visitors to the studio).  They offer little windows into the realm of pictorial tapestry–close-up microcosms of another world.

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A Rich Man’s Eden: Gardens in Tapestry

walking in rose gardenThere’s no mistaking Europe’s love of its gardens.  While on a study travel program through St. Olaf College in 2008, I had the chance to stroll through some beautifully kept estate gardens from the 16th Century, with their peculiar “follies,” water features, and of course the roses with stems as big around as my arm.  We could only imagine such gardens in northern Wisconsin, where a rose is lucky to survive the winter at all!

Having spectacular ornamental gardens during the Early Modern Era was also of great importance to the landed gentry.  Not only was it a sign of conspicuous consumption (I’m not using this land to grow food and I can afford people to do all the work to keep it pretty too), but it was considered an integral part of the refinement of upper crust culture. picking roses tapestry

This is the space where couples gathered to share love poetry, where esteemed guests were entertained, where maidens sat at embroidery when the weather was fair, and where comfortable walks were enjoyed.  The nobleman’s garden was often walled–secluded from the rest of the world like its own perfect Eden.

Sometimes we forget that noble life wasn’t all parties and fancy dress.  This was the ruling class, involved in all the conflicts, power play, and politics of the day.  A flowering garden offered an island of peace in the midst of nearly constant wartime struggle that dominated with 15th and 16th Centuries.  After finally ending the Hundred Year’s War with France, the Wars of the Roses rocked England and deposed the Plantagenet reign for that of the Tudors.  Almost exclusively affecting the ruling elite, this struggle is contemporary with the earliest theorized dates for the making of the Unicorn Tapestries (1480’s to 1510’s).

the walk tapestryMen were called to war, women died in childbirth–it certainly wasn’t easy times.  A relaxing stroll in the garden, picking flowers and enjoying sweets, would have seemed an incredible luxury.  This is reflected in many contemporary tapestries, which of course were commissioned by these same noble classes.  Castle walls are stony and often bleak, and lining them with luxurious tapestries not only helped to insulate the cold and damp but also visually livened the space.  What better way to chase off the bleakness than to bring the beloved gardens inside!

Each plant and flower (as well as the friendly birds and animals depicted in tapestry gardens) also carried symbolic meaning.  Being offered a flower by a suitor was more than a pretty fancy–different blooms (or even different colors of the same type of flower) carried their own messages.  offering the heart tapestryA rose showed the triumph of love over death, the lily eternal purity, and the daffodil chivalrous intent.

But there is an interesting peculiarity in the representation of gardens in tapestry (which can also be clearly seen in the Unicorn Tapestries).  All the majestic trees and beautiful flowers are doing an impossibility for nature–they are blooming and bearing fruit at the same time.  Oranges hang ripe alongside acorns, carnations and crocuses and violets bloom alongside asters and roses.  It is as if these gardens are touched by the magic of what could only be a dream garden even to the viewers of its day–where every stem bears a bloom and every branch bears fruits for harvesting.  Lushness abounds everywhere, untrampled by foot, unharmed by war.

In this form of artistic representation, the gardens of the nobility truly become a rich man’s Eden–full of life and luxury, without care or complaint.  It was such a favorite courtship tapestryplace that this strata of society chose to pay large sums for tapestries bringing that natural delight into their spacious, often fortified homes.  To me, this is telling of an inner yearning for serenity not often discussed in mainstream historical accounts of medieval and Renaissance life.  We hear about the wars and the castles and the banquets, but what about those quiet walks in the garden?  The tapestries tell us that these too were a cherished and meaningful part of these people’s experience.


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First Study–Verdure

oak leaves in tapestryBefore embarking on the full-sized tapestry project, I knew that I needed to hone some skills and experiment.  My previous tapestry work had been much more simplistic in detail and shading, and there were two areas I wanted to give special focus–verdure (especially leaves) and fabrics (especially velvet).

For the first, I started with an image detail from “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, which sports a wide variety of plants and flowers in a relatively naturalistic setting.  Working with only four colors, the Gothic tapestry weavers were able to create a particularly striking sense of three-dimensionality and illumination that is especially noticeable when standing further back from the textiles.

Plants, while not only adding to the loveliness of the outdoor setting, also carry significant symbolic weight and merit of their own.  In “The Hunt of the Unicorn” set, the beech and the oak are most prominent, and I was planning to incorporate both into my own “Deceiving the Hunters” project.squirrel in tree tapestry detail  For the study, I chose a particular corner from the panel “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought Back to the Castle,” which included leaves of varying brightness, veining, branches, hazelnuts, and a receding background.  This particular verdure is hazelnut (not what would be in the final piece), but it offered good potential practice for depth and detail all packed in a relatively small area.

And just to keep from getting too bored with the study, it also has that most charming squirrel included as well!  I would work the study on a very simple and small frame loom, playing with colors and yarns I intended to use on the final piece, and see what happened during the process.

verdure study beginsWhat I discovered first was that the original tapestries used a much finer weft than I.  Their ability to create minute detail is therefore also much greater.  While attempting the delicate hatched shading (see leaves in lower center), the actual shape and intent began to disappear in business.  I changed approach to try to mimic the waxiness and shading in a blockier style (see leaf in lower left) and enjoyed the effect much better.

It’s not perfectly accurate to a historical interpretation, but I’m not trying to make a copy of the original–I’m making my own piece that is influenced by the original.  Those are two quite different aesthetic and technical objectives.

finished first studyI did, however, begin developing a method for four-color shading to create a sense of depth, and the squirrel was quite fun (especially his little feet).  I continued to work leaves, stems, hazelnuts (even grasses) until the warp separation at the top of the loom became too tight.  I decided to leave the top unfinished as a teaching tool about how the Flemish technique works in “hills and valleys.”

I did work this piece bottom to top (not from the side), so I knew there would be even more new interpretation to work on the official piece, which I ultimately decided to work in the authentic sideways manner.  Still, the verdure study proved a useful textile playground for experimentation in this important visual component that creates the backdrop for the leading characters.

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The Maiden, the Unicorn, and Symbolic Tranfer

unicorn hunted with maidenThe ancient ties of the maiden and the unicorn (as discussed in the earlier post “Who is She?–The Lady and the Unicorn”) stayed as an amazingly stable narrative from early times through “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series.  The balance between the wild and the domestic, coupled with the gentle lure of the lovely maiden, all play their traditional parts in the story.

But the rise of medieval allegory added an interesting twist to the meaning of the unicorn, which can obscure the original roles.  Allegory is the use of symbolically rich images representing ideas.  the three fates tapestryThis is especially useful in an age of low literacy rates.  Complicated social ideas can be conveyed, using allegory, in a single image/scene.  But this only works if the viewers have their own internal “magic decoder ring” and know what is being presented in the image.

For instance, in the tapestry presented right (roughly contemporary to the Unicorn Tapestries), the three fates are spinning thread together using a distaff and drop spindle.  Showing three women of different ages spinning together would, for the medieval viewer, instantly brought to mind the three fates (which as shown here also clearly mimics the triple-phase goddess of maiden, mother, and crone).  Just in case there’s confusion, these ladies also have their names in Latin written near their heads.

But below them lays another lady prostrate.  In fact, they are stepping on her.  The representation of stepping on someone (or running them over with a cart) in medieval and Renaissance art meant conquest.  Here, we know this defeated lady by her broken staff of lilies as “Chastity.”  This piece would likely have been labeled “The fates conquer chastity” or “Chastity is conquered by fate.”chastity procession

Having concepts like virginity, death, or love represented as people is an anthropomorphising of the forces at work in human lives.  There are several notable works of art (including tapestry) from this historic period showing a series of processions, including “Love Triumphs”  (people getting squished), followed by “Chastity Triumphs over Love” (Cupid gets squished), then “Death Triumphs over Chastity” (lady chastity gets squished), then “Fame Triumphs over Death” (grim reaper character is squished), then “Time Triumphs over Fame” (winged hornblower gets squished), then “Eternity Triumphs over Time” (and everyone but Christ is under the wagon wheels).  Whenever Chastity is shown, she carries her lilies (or a palm branch) atop her adorned cart, aided by a procession of demure maidens as escorts.  Now and then, young men are present too.  Shown here, Chastity’s conquest includes a bound cupid (Eros).  Pulling her sumptuous wagon are a pair of unicorns, harnessed to their yokes like horses.

The association of having unicorns pull the human icon representing Chastity draws from the older Lady and Unicorn mythos, but here is where an important symbolic transference happens.  While the unicorn had once been the symbol of the mystique of the wild, tamed by the hands of the virgin maid, now the unicorn is imparted with the maiden’s own symbolism.  unicorns in processionDo any quick search on the meaning of unicorns in art and “chastity” arises as one of the top hits.  I find this particularly interesting, since the single, erect horn of the unicorn is also widely considered a strong phallic symbol.  How can these two meanings live in one animals?

Perhaps a culturally important note to consider is the role of chastity in late medieval/early Renaissance society.  There is the obvious case in point of women remaining virgin until marriage (which, for the high-born was most often an arranged affair built on family alliances and land deals…more like a business transaction).  Young ladies were felt to be fully adult at age 12, which was also the legal marrying age for girls (boys having to wait until they were 14).  It was believed that a woman’s best child-bearing years were in their teens, which reflects the general state of health and nutrition in the age.

Alternately, marriage prospects for a woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock were especially bleak–unless she happened to be a powerful and influential mistress to a nobleman.  But her situation was still rocky at best and her children without the inheritance of their “legitimate” half-siblings.  Many a discontented or back-stabbing turn in Western history finds it seeds in illegitimacy.  No wonder chastity was considered the best option for unmarried women!

The other aspect to consider was the great wealth and social prominence of monastic orders at this time (including in England, where the dissolution of the monasteries had not yet been enacted).unicorn drawing  Noble families were often expected to bequeath a child to a monastic order and with her (or him) gifts of land and/or money for the child’s keeping.  For girls going to convents, this would include their dowry as they were viewed as being “married” to Christ.  Life in a monastery was strictly chase, in keeping with the contemporary ascetic traditions, but not without its politics.  Daughters of earls and barons often rose to the ranks of abbess (and likewise for the men in their orders).  These women in the nunneries were considered important emissaries between the family and God’s holiness–keeping the lay members of the clan in good spiritual standing.  The nun or monk in the family served, through purity and devotion to spiritual matters, to maintain that fragile balance between the carnal and the eternal.

maiden and unicorn older tapestrySo what are we to make of the unicorn–one part chastity and one part virility?  Is this paradox a historical anomaly?  In a world steeped in allegory, how does one animal hold both, or is this part of the great mystery and lure of the unicorn?  Is the symbolism of the unicorn as representing chastity a transference from the virgin maid herself in the rose garden with the unicorn upon her lap, or is it integral to the beast?  In the Unicorn Tapestries, we see this chimera as both fierce and gentle, warlike and demure, so perhaps it intrinsically holds the capability of duality in unity (part of what makes a chimera a chimera–two things put together).

It is, then, perhaps not surprising that as the unicorn also became an animistic symbol of Christ in medieval art that the maiden became linked with the Virgin Mary, who holds the dualist role of both maiden and mother.  Over time, these overlays of narrative, symbolism, allegorical use, and interpretation have crafted the complex weave of the story represented by the lady and the unicorn–a story integral to understanding the Unicorn Tapestries.

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What Makes Tapestry Unique?

unicorn holding bannerThe word “tapestry” can often be used with very broad strokes in our language–from implying that something is colorful, comprised of many parts, or decorative.  But the word tapestry is actually much more specific.  In fact, it denotes a very small subset of textiles.  I’ll deconstruct the confusion in this post, with helpful illustrations.  As someone who is a weaver of many different types of textiles, I appreciate the value of using the right terms for the medium.  Knowing a bit more about tapestry technique also gives us a peak into how these amazing historical textiles survived 500 years as well preserved as they have.

One of the most confusing references using the word tapestry is in the name of the Bayeaux Tapestries, which illustrate the Roman Conquest of 1066 (a sample of the masterpiece is illustrated at right).  bayeux closeupThis remarkable set is actually worked as very detailed embroidery, where colored threads are stitched onto an already woven background.  This is an entirely different technique from the Unicorn Tapestries (illustrated left), where the design is actually created in the weaving of the piece.

Within the world of weaving, we find plain weaves, twills, overshort, and many other techniques.  Some (like most cloth) shares fairly evenly with warp and weft, but some styles of weaving have a predominance of one or the other.  For instance, rag rugs (example from one of my own projects shown left) has strips of fabric as weft.  This is so thick that is forces the cotton warp threads to curve around each row.  This style of textile is called “warp faced,” meaning that the warp is on the outside.rag rug detail

True tapestry, on the other hand, is the exact opposite–it is “weft faced.”  This means that the warp is strictly a stabilizer for the piece (the backbone if you will) and only the weft is visible.  Therefore, in tapestry, the weft must carry the image.  Almost never (unless the pattern bears a full horizontal line) does any one weft thread pass the entire width of a tapestry.  Each weaves back and forth over its own color area, with a different thread for each color region.  The yarns are dyed before being woven–no printing the image on later like silk screening or block dyeing, and no stitching it in like embroidery.

tapestry in progress detailHere, on the “Deceiving the Hunters” piece currently in progress, you can see the white warp threads above.  But once an area is woven, they completely disappear–like it’s a weaver’s magic trick.  Individual “butterflies” (a Navajo method of bundling weft threads for ease in weaving) dangle down from their respective color areas on the lady’s velvet sleeve.

Navajo textiles (often called rugs, though they deserve far more respect than this term typically garners) are also tapestries, due to their weft facing technique.  Woven (rather than knotted) Persian rugs are as well.  In fact, some of the oldest surviving textiles in the world are worked using tapestry technique.  Here is an example of one of my own Navajo-style tapestries, where the warp threads above can be seen but the weft carries all of the color.  Weft-faced textiles are amazingly durable because the tightly-packed weft yarns/threads protect the warp from damage.

navajo tapestry in progressOnce warp threads have been severed, unraveling can cause great destruction for a tapestry, requiring the heroic stabilizing efforts that have been part of the Unicorn Tapestries’ restoration process.  But had these historic textiles been made using any other style of weaving, the likelihood of surviving their harrowing history would have been almost impossible.  The very nature of the way they were woven has greatly contributed to their longevity–that an the amazing properties of wool.  But that could be another whole post of its own!

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