It was six years after visiting the Cloisters that I was able to be close to medieval and Renaissance tapestries again. During a trip to New England to regenerate and reconnect, we buzzed through Boston to visit family. On top of my wish list of places to stop was the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum, which is renowned for its extensive collection of early art–including tapestries.
It was Columbus Day, and the place was packed. In the central cloisters, a trio played improvisational jazz while people listened and mingled, exploring the three flights of creatively architectured rooms packed with artifacts–painting, sculpture, textiles, books, drawings, instruments, tiles, furnishings, and more.
While the “Tapestry Room” was quite impressive, the style is of a later period (mid 1500’s), when the tradition had changed to affect a strong sense of theatrics and a broad scenic scope. Borders are heavy and elaborate, and the background stretches far into the horizon. These pieces were very fine in weave and detail, but they do represent an age when the art of dyeing was focused on mimicking the colors available to painters–colors which did not hold their hue as well as the traditional medieval dyes.
The symbolism in the pieces, though, still hold with the earlier works–the use of specific trees, plants, and flowers, as well as animals to tell the tale. Here in “Queen Tomyris Learns that her Son has been Taken Captive by Cyrus” (1535-1550), a stout pear tree rises right between the two leading subjects of this point in the saga. The pear is strongly linked with male virility, and its inclusion in the tapestry would have been part of its allegorical storytelling nature–an intended element of telling the tale.
In fact, while visiting the museum, I picked up an exciting new resource (originally published in French) The Secrete Language of Flowers by Jean-Michel Othoniel, which illustrates the storytelling-in-images support that verdure offers in art. And yes, the stout pear tree was in there too!
Two of the most exciting pieces for me, however, were in the third floor stairhall. This one titled “Amazons Preparing for a Joust” (1450-1475) dates just before the Unicorn Tapestries. The styling is a little more simplistic than the Unicorn Tapestries, but the colors are amazingly rich, and the gold thread unmistakable! There is gold work in the eyes and lips of the ladies as well, and they are positioned such that, no matter where you stand in relation to the piece, they are looking at you. It’s almost a little spooky.
Having a tapestry with only women depicted is quite rare. Typically, scenes with women have at least one male suitor or manservant present. And having women in male roles (putting on helmets and holding jousting gear) is also quite rare–this is a unique piece indeed! The story behind its commission and making would be an interesting dive into history all on its own.
The second piece, which was only a few feet away from the first (and partly concealed by a wardrobe-like piece of furnishing) was “Esther Fainting Before Aheseurus” (1510-1525), which would have been made right after the Unicorn Tapestries. While the fashions are just a little later in period, the weaving style, the use of a small sub-scene in the background with the main scene in the foreground, and the slightly stilted use of perspective show very similar earmarks to “The Hunt of the Unicorn” series. It is even possible that the two were woven at the same studio.
Again, the luster of the gold-work was quite impressive. The border is modest compared with later works, but interesting. Due to their damage, I am uncertain as to whether either of the Unicorn sets would have had decorative borders because they are currently not included. It is very likely that “The Lady and the Unicorn” did not–or only a small, solid-colored border. I found it interesting that this particular border plays with the mille fleur of earlier period and does not engage the more architectural elements of later borders–possibly a transition moment in tapestry design.
Could something like this border have been part of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” originally? Currently, the series has a small white-and-red border, but I suspect this was added as part of the restoration process. It does beg one to wonder, though, as with so many aspects of the Unicorn Tapestries.