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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Visit to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Laura and Ann at museumIt 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.  queen tomyris tapestry

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!

amazons tapestryTwo 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.

Esther tapestryThe 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.

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Previous Gobelin Loom Projects

leclerc loomYou know that you’re a quirky teenager when your grandparents ask what you’d like as a high school graduation gift and your answer is a really big tapestry loom!  As a homeschooler, I had found great appeal in the textile arts of the Navajo traditions of the American Southwest.

While working beautiful geometrics, I also was drawn to “pictorials,” weaving scenes of my beloved chickens, wild birds that visited the feeder, and even a few with stylized people.  But I had really maxed out the pictorial method within that technique framework.

I was therefore interested in exploring the world of Flemish tapestry, which is all about pictorial imagery and a sense of realism I had found previously unattainable.  But in order to work this new technique, I needed the right tool, and that graduation gift came as a Leclerc Gobelin tapestry loom that weighed 175 pounds and, once assembled, stood higher than me and over five feet wide!  It was a young weaver’s dream!round sheep rug

The loom was also the instigation of building my studio yurt.  Because the loom was so hefty, its original location in the loft of our house caused the floor to sag, and the loom had to move somewhere else!  But that could be a whole post by itself.

For my first project, I wanted to do a tapestry “by the book”–sideways, backwards, with slit weaving (taboo in Navajo technique), and a traditional theme.  So I chose a heraldry motif, inventing a coat of arms that would have been described as “Vert, a Falcon Rising Argent” with the Latin inscription “Audentia Sophia Decus,” which means Courage, Wisdom, Virtue.

mini heraldry tapestryI first learned how warping was a completely different technique from either a Navajo or a floor loom.  It’s taken several projects to finesse my approach, including the addition of a stainless steel reed for warp spacing at the top and a hardware store purchase of a mountain of oversized metal washers for weighting warp bundles when wrapping onto the warp beam.

I also made the mistake of weaving my first piece in alpaca (at the time it was the only yarn I could find that was spun fine enough for a project with a 12-warps-per-inch count).  It was slippery and considerably less forgiving than wool–and I learned my lesson on that one!  Blends are fine, but I’ll never weave an entire tapestry of pure alpaca again!

Perhaps it was my years of training in Navajo technique that also made the sideways and backwards facing approach of the work quite aggravating, especially working the Latin text on the motto scroll.  It is advantageous for making “floats” and leaving “tails” to keep them on the weaver’s side, but since this piece I have worked all my Gobelin loom tapestries from the front.  I know this is anachronistic for Flemish tapestry, but as the designer and the weaver, having the “finished” view facing me while I work has been personally preferential.Nele and the Sea tapestry

The second piece was much larger and more naturalistic in its approach.  Titled “Nele and the Sea” after a friend, I was playing with perspective, texture, and some three-dimensional elements.  I returned to using wool and adjusted to a 10 warps-per-inch count, which I used in the next piece as well as the current unicorn tapestry project.

In this piece, I experimented with “crosshatch” shading on the gown, use of different fibers for different effects (her hair is cotton, which has a nice sheen), and working a strong sense of depth as well as fluidity of lines.  This textile was woven from bottom to top (rather than sideways), which made the angles in her dress cumbersome but the lines in the ocean waves graceful.  There is a real trade-off as to what you can create depending on which way the piece is oriented on the loom!

Nele tapestry detailThe other aspect I engaged, which was rather playful, was the addition of  non-traditional items like the real earring in her ear, fishing line whiskers for the cat, and fringe for the shawl that is tied into the warps and can be positioned at will (windy day, calm day).  Many people comment on how fun and interesting these detail additions are, especially when they haven’t noticed them right away.

Tapestry is a very tactile medium–you are almost compelled to touch it.  Of course, this cannot be with the historic pieces, but with contemporary work, touch is an important part of experiencing a tapestry.

heraldry in progress tapestryThe next piece was a commissioned work for a woman whose family traces its lineage to Ireland, with great pride for their O’Sullivan coat of arms.  This included a motto, a complex shield with five different figures, the helm and mantling, and a crest.  It took years to finish this piece!  But with the vivid colors, the completed tapestry is quite striking and adorns the patron’s mantle over the fireplace.

Black backgrounds would not be traditional, but this was the patron’s choice.  The white dashes on the piece-in-progress are the stitches that hold the cartoon to the back of the tapestry to insure accuracy.  They are removed once the textile comes off the loom.

finished O'sullivanHere is the piece in its finished form.  Through the process of making these three tapestries, I worked on warping technique, basic shading, composition, and materials acquisition.  I also developed my “weaver’s mark” (seen in the lower right), which I’ll cover in a different post.

I was ready for a bigger challenge, something that would stretch my technique and try different material.  The loom sat empty in the studio for a little while until the research for the new piece was complete–research that would be the foundation for the current Gobelin tapestry loom project “Deceiving the Hunters.”

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The High Warp Tapestry Loom

Gobelin high warp loomThe technology for weaving tapestry has changed rather little over the centuries.  And while the Jacquard loom of the 18th Century was actually the first computer–this loom used a punched card system where needles attached to individual warp threads poked through (or not), dictating the pattern one row at a time–actual tapestry work is still executed completely by hand.  In another post, I’ll explain how tapestry differs from other types of textiles.

During the time of the unicorn tapestries, the most renowned studios were in Brussels and Leon, in Flanders (now Belgium), with the Gobelin studio in Paris just being opened.  The latter would become quite famous in the Classical tapestry age (after the unicorn series), where they would leave a lasting mark on the art for by imparting their studio name on the type of loom itself–the Gobelin tapestry loom.gobelin tapestry weaver

Two main methods existed in the late medieval period for weaving tapestry.  The first (in the Gobelin and Brussels vein) was what is known as a “high warp” loom, where the structural warp threads are held vertically on rollers.  These were set up in permanent studios and were considered to be of the highest quality and fineness.  The high-warp weavers formed guilds and guarded their trade secrets closely.

Secondly were the “low warp” tapestry looms, which were set up like contemporary floor looms, with the warp stretched horizontally.  While some permanent low-warp tapestry studios existed, often this loom was preferred by itinerant weavers who would set up their loom at the place of employment, complete the commission, and then move on.  While there is actually no technical reason why low-warp tapestry looms should produce a difference in quality from the high-warp variety, they gained a reputation as being coarser, cheaper, and of faster production.  If you were of the lower ranking nobility but still wanted to have your house look the part, you probably would hire a low-warp tapestry weaver.  If you were of high ranking nobility and could afford “the real deal,” you went to the high-warp studios for you tapestry needs.gobelins studio

Because tapestry warp requires considerable tension, high-warp looms were often monstrous and involved support from the building as well as the frame.  And because castle and manor house tapestries were often wider than tall in finished size, this meant that supporting a beam strong enough to accommodate such great width was physically impossible due to the materials available at the time.  Therefore, with the piece turned on its side, the roller beams supporting the warp only had to be as long as the piece was tall.  This meant weaving the project sideways.  The other quirk of tradition was that the weavers actually worked on the back of the piece, mounting mirrors on the opposite side so that they could check on the accuracy of their progress.  In this drawing, patrons have come to visit their commissions-in-progress.  They are standing at the back of the loom in order to view the front side of the piece.tapestry weaver

The Gobelin studios still exist, and you can visit them in Paris to see current works in progress.  Another prominent studio and school is West Dean in England, which recently completed their recreation of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series for Sterling Castle in Scotland.  Their interpretation of the fragmented scene involves borrowing from “The Lady and the Unicorn–Sight,” which does agree with the bit of hand and sleeve remaining in the original.

Unlike most contemporary western looms, the Gobelin style of tapestry loom does not employ foot pedals for warp separation.  Instead, a dowel holds one shed apart, while “leashes” catch the opposite shed.  The weaver grabs the leashes with one hand, pulling, while the other hand inserts the thread through the gap.  This is actually quite similar (though on a larger scale) to the traditional Navajo technique of “stick shed” and “pull shed”–a tradition which grew up completely independent of European tapestry production.modern gobelin loom

One thing remains constant with high-warp tapestry technique, and that is the highly time-consuming nature of the medium.  Each thread is worked individually and by hand, pounded down with a wooden or metal comb.  And, while the cartoon is present to help the weaver, colorwork and finesse are entirely affected by the weaver’s skill and abilities.  Scrutinizing the Unicorn Tapestries, these artists were very skilled indeed–able to work heroics in shading and detail with a very limited palate.  It must have been quite impressive indeed to have visited those late medieval studios during their production process!

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Quest for the Horn–by Land or by Sea

maiden with unicornAll this fuss with maidens, gardens, hunting.  Why seek the unicorn at all?  Why go to all the trouble?  Surely something else would be tastier and less dangerous?  Wouldn’t the hart make just as pretty of a mount?

Ah, but the fleet-footed hart doesn’t have what the unicorn’s got–the magic to purify (no wonder it’s attracted to the maiden’s purity).  And all that magic lives in the horn.

You see, there was a problem for people in the upper echelons of medieval society.  That problem was poisoning.  I’ve often wondered how much of that came from food poisoning due to lack of sanitation in the kitchen, but nonetheless, popping off whoever was in the way of what you wanted (land, riches, a pretty girl) could be done easily enough by slipping something into that unfortunate fellow’s drink.

unicorn horn flaskWith everyone living in close proximity and most meals still being a public affair, with the noble family presiding at the raised dais at the end of the hall, anyone could have done it!  No Sherlock Holmes to call for discovering who was culpable for the dastardly deed.  No life insurance.  So traditions sprung up to mitigate risk.  The traditional toast at the beginning of a meal was once a more rowdy affair, where drink from each cup upon impact would slosh into the other.  If you were planning to poison someone at the table, you would be quite reticent to lift your cup for sloshing!  In essence, it was a show of trust to toast one another and make that hearty clink.

But there was another method in circulation.  What if the very vessel from which you drank was able to purify any contents–even the most vilest of poisons?  Could that be possible?  People of the Middle Ages thought so.  And what might be the medium for such a powerful cup?  Why, the horn of a unicorn, of course!

unicorn purifies waterAnd here we must return to the ancient story about unicorns to learn why.  Part of the legend is that every night, the serpent of evil slips into rivers and lakes and poisons the water.  All the animals of the forest must wait until dawn, when the unicorn comes to the banks and dips its horn into the water.  Instantly, all the vile venom is repelled and the water is safe once again for the animals to drink.  This is relayed in “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestry series, where the animals are waiting by a fountain for the unicorn to purify the stream with its magical horn.

If you were a nobleman in fear of poisoning, you’d want a piece of that magic too!  No one seemed to wonder if the power of the horn worked in life as well as death, for an industry sprung up over the procurement and sale of unicorn horns for this elite and often spendy market.  Every inch was money to be made.

sea unicornAh, but you say, where would such horns have come from for this sale?  Surely there was no medieval unicorn farms to raise them.  And here we intersect another interesting piece of medieval legend–the copying theory.  It was believed that for every creature on land, there was a counterpart that lived in the sea.  Goats had their fish-tailed cousin the Capricorn.  Even people had their version–the mermaid.  If a unicorn on land existed, then a unicorn of the sea must also exist.  And interestingly enough, a sea unicorn does exist.  It just doesn’t look that much like a unicorn.

narwhalThe narwhal is quite a natural curiosity, with its whale body and enormously long fighting “tooth” off the prow of its face.  Occasionally, narwhal tusks will wash to shore, and these immediately found their way onto the lucrative unicorn horn market.  Every “unicorn horn” object of medieval work can be traced to the narwhal.  Maybe those dashing men of the castle would have had better luck setting out to sea than traipsing through the woods in search of the precious horn.  But then we would have missed all the drama with the maidens in the garden–and then where would our story be?

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Alternative Narrative: Power, Play, or Involvement?

original sketchYou know the story of the Three Little Pigs, yes?  They each have their little roles to play, along with the “big bad wolf.”  Now imagine that one day, someone is telling you the story, but the wolf is a completely different character.  He’s been evicted from his home because the oncoming urban sprawl of the city of pigs condemned his lands and forced him off his family farm.  This new bit of backstory might completely change your opinion of the aggressive behaviors of the wolf and the silly antics of the pigs.  With this in mind, you wonder, maybe the wolf has a point.  Maybe he has a legitimate reason for wanting to eat the pigs and this is more than a child’s creative lecture on building sturdy houses.

Just so, the stories told over and over in what are now known as “fairy tales” can sometimes be used to share cultural wisdoms while at other times are used in a subliminal way to mold social behavior (I’m thinking Disney!).  Stories are the human method for understanding life–both personally, historically, culturally, and spiritually.  We literally “story ourselves” and our world into a place where we feel that we can understand it, can relay it, and it becomes ours.  But our stories can also limit or harm us, and that is where the skill of alternative narrative can be most compelling.unicorn sketch

Think of all the role rewriting for the lives of women through their process of liberation?  Think of the new narratives that had to be formed as enslaved people came to freedom?  Think of a national history that had to be formed as new governments arose from the ashes of what had come before?  The very reason that the “Middle Ages” received their name and backwards connotation was because intellects of the Renaissance happened upon the writings of Classical Greece and believed that they were creating a new age (and that everything in between them and Classical Greece was horribly ignorant and dark).  It’s a narrative that still clouds most people’s understanding of the medieval experience today.

Now imagine, as a contemporary (and feminist) storyteller, you encounter a narrative where some noble men want a unicorn horn (why they want the horn will be explained in another post).  They’re hungry for a hunt, so they set out with their best hounds and scouts to find this illusive beast.  They discover the unicorn performing one of its many miracles–purifying the river water with its horn.  The tranquil scene is soon broken by the baying of hounds and the sounding of horns, and they’re off on the chase.  The unicorn flees, fording a river, but the men and dogs are quickly upon it.  Infuriated and injured, the unicorn fights back, kicking and goring with the power of a wild ass.  A hound loses its life and the men lose their pray into the thickets of the forest.

lady sketchWhat to do?  They cannot return home empty handed.  They must claim their prize and show off their manhood!  But force isn’t working, so it’s time to use guile.  Everyone knows from the stories that unicorns cannot resit the charms and pleasant smell of a maiden, so the young damsels of the castle are summoned to the garden to work their charms, while the hunters wait in the bushes for the “all-clear.”  The scene plays out just as expected, and the hunters pounce on their opportunity, slaying the now passive unicorn and parading its corpse on the back of a horse towards the castle and its crowd of proud onlookers.  Now wasn’t that a splendid day for a hunt indeed.

But none of those damsels are partaking in the celebration, their absence like a strange gap in the dance.  Did they remain in the rose garden?  How did they feel after taming the beast that had just been so violent and deadly, only to have it carried off and killed?  Who asked them to share their side of the story?  What would you have done if you had been there?

Because the maidens are not present at the homecoming celebrations, they are simply being used by the men to accomplish their goal.  The capture of the unicorn is merely the means of procuring the magical horn.  I have yet to see “haunch of unicorn” appearing on the menu of even the most fanciful medieval fairy tale, which means it wasn’t intended to be eaten.  So both maiden and mystical animal are tools for an end–procurement of the coveted horn.

full tapestry cartoonNow imagine that the lady and the unicorn, seeing in each other the oppressed, decide to change the story–right where the fragment panel of the original adds its mystery of the unknown.  What if, instead of telling the hunters it is time to come in for the kill, the lady leads the unicorn to a place of hiding and safety, thereby “Deceiving the Hunters” (as the title of my alternative narrative tapestry piece relays).

Ah, but you have seen her!  You were in the garden too!  She raises her finger to her lips.  Will you participate in this new plot?  Will you keep the secret of their escape?  Will you turn her in and claim the horn as your own?  Now that you know the story and how it usually plays out, you too are part of that story.  And there enters the power, the playfulness, and your involvement in the alternative narrative woven into “Deceiving the Hunters.”

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Visiting the Originals

Laura at CloistersLiving in rural, northern Wisconsin could be considered a challenging location for viewing historic tapestries.  But that means that whenever I do get to travel off the farm, I’m always looking for a chance to experience a medieval textile masterwork.

In the winter of 2009, my sister Kara was attending a dairy sheep conference in Albany, NY.  Tagging along, I realized it was the closest I had ever been to the Cloisters Museum–part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.  No one in the family wanted to drive through the city, and I was public transit illiterate (hmmm, this was going to be a challenge).  But I was going to get there!

Fortunately, I had a few amazingly helpful Goddard classmates who lived in the area and could give me detailed instructions for using transit from Albany all the way to the entrance of the gardens to the Cloisters.  During a break from the sheep conference, we made a day of the affair.  Laura and Unicorn tapestryThe stony towers of the museum rose against a cool, gray sky.  Inside, only a few people were milling about the museum–no large school groups, no massive tour crowds.  It gave us quiet and intimate time with the array of arts and artifacts housed in the collection.

What impressed me first when entering the tapestry room was the sheer size of the pieces.  Having experienced these works only in books or digitally before the trip, the sense of size is nowhere as compelling as meeting the works in person.  There is not a wall in my entire house big enough to support even one of the panels!  To give you a little perspective, the people in the tapestries are nearly life-sized.

Being a tapestry weaver myself, I was then equally struck by the amount of time that would have gone into each piece–let alone the whole set.  All the washing of the wool would have been done by hand, as well as the carding and spinning.  This would have been accomplished by innumerable women working with drop spindles and distaffs.  Then whole teams of people were employed in the dying process, which was all vegetal–woad, madder, yarrow, etc.  Another team was in charge of color matching and sorting and winding the weft threads onto the hanging bobbins, ready for the teams of weavers.  Newer weavers would focus on verdure and small animals, while a most skilled weaver or two in the studio would float from piece to piece-in-progress, just doing hands and faces!

trumpeter detailIt also struck me just how rich the colors have remained over 500 years of use and abuse.  During the French Revolution, peasants were rampaging noble households–pulling out anything bearing a coat of arms, piling it up in the yard, and burning it.  Traditionally, this set would have born coats of arms along with a Latin inscription across the top, explaining who was the patron of the set and what occasion the pieces celebrated.  Some enterprising or dedicated person cut off this portion, carefully clipping around leaves and castle turrets in the background.  The result?  While the tapestries were mutilated by the process and the story behind them is now shrouded in mystery, the bulk of the textiles were confiscated instead of burned.

They were discovered in the mid 1800’s in a peasant’s barn–being stored there for use as a covering for crops against frost.  Rescued from what surely would have become their demise, the pieces were cleaned and restored (as best they knew how at that time), though the original top portion could never be recreated since no documentation survives as to its content.  Instead, blue sky above was added, as well as patched in other portions–either rewoven or, as in some cases, tacked in from other tapestries (which apparently were worse off than this set).

unicorn captiveWith no direct link to patron or reason save the love-knotted A and E, which are ever-present throughout the pieces, the meaning has tickled the fancy of curators and historians since its restoration.  The most compelling potential narrative is that the series was a commissioned as a wedding gift (hence the tying of A and E together) and was originally hung as a bedroom set.  “The Start of the Hunt” and “The Unicorn Captive” (shown right) were actually woven separately from the rest of the hunt (up close, you can see how they are stylistically very different).  The scene of hunters heading off was for the back of the 4-poster bed (between the headrest and the wall), while the unicorn in a circular pen with the pomegranate tree was suspended above (protecting the sleepers below from falling debris and to hold in warmth).

These two are the most placid in the set and could conceivably be a comfort in sleep, though the rest of the series is in comparison rather gory, including hounds being filleted by the unicorn’s horn and the unicorn being stabbed by sword and spear.  But framing the scene within the idea of pursuit and capture (courtship brought to marriage), peppered with plants and animals that have their roles to play in fertility symbolism, I find the link to be the best hypothesis presently available.  If this is the case, what a bedroom suite indeed!

unicorn fragmentThe curiosity of the trip, though, was in seeing the only piece to include maidens (you can tell by their headdress and demeanor), which was perched over the doorway to the room.  You really had to look for it, and many visitors might even have missed it, because all that remains are two fragments of a work which likely was just as large as the rest.

This is the panel where the unicorn is being beguiled by the maiden, but all that remains of her are her fingers and part of a brocade sleeve.  The damsel in red is raising her hand to alert the huntsman in the tree that the lure has been successful–her movements languidly serpentine like the snake in the garden of Eden.  The rest of the panel, like the heraldry and inscriptions, have vanished into the sands of time.  To learn more about what would have been happening in this panel, please read the post “Who is She?–the Lady and the Unicorn.”

After spending at least three hours in the tapestry room alone, I left the Cloisters awed that something as fragile as a textile could have survived such a harrowing history at all.  Even though it bears its battle scars and alterations, the fact that I can visit a 500-year-old wall-hanging and still be filled with the sense of splendor and show of power and money behind the works indicates the timelessness of the medieval tapestry medium.  I was struck by the narrative of the work and also by mystery of the fragment–a lingering thought that would work its way into my own tapestry project.

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