This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
Tapestries are one of the most effective forms of literary expression the world has ever known. Through them the stories of Homer's Iliad and of Homer's Odyssey were made vivid to the Greeks. Through them the stories of Virgil's Ăneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses were made vivid to the Romans. Through them the stories of Greek and Roman and Medieval History and Romance, as well as of the Bible and the Saints, were made vivid to the people of France, England, Germany, and Italy during the XIV, XV, XVI, XVII centuries.
Between the tapestries of classical antiquity and those of the XIV century a long period of darkness intervened. For a thousand years weavers were content to leave the making of large wall-pictures to painters and embroiderers. For a thousand years the art of making arras was dead. Arras, I should here explain, is another name for picture-tapestries taken from the Flemish city of Arras (See chapter IV (Flemish And Burgundian Looms)) that, in the XIV century, was as famous for the manufacture of tapestry as the Gobelins is now.
About ancient Greek picture-tapestries we know definitely from the description in the Odyssey of the picture-tapestry that Penelope wove openly by day, but unravelled secretly by night because its final completion meant that she must keep her promise to select from among the suitors one to succeed the long-absent and supposedly long-lost Ulysses. Andromache, too, wove tapestry, wove the shroud that was soon to envelop the body of Hector. Most wonderful of all was the tapestry that Helen wove, Helen of Troy, whose romance brought strife between two great nations, and led to the downfall of her adopted country. In this tapestry, with fatal irony, she wove the story of her own tragic life.
About the picture-tapestries of ancient Rome we know, from the spirited weaving contest described by Ovid in the Story of Arachne. Arachne had the audacity to contend even against the goddess of the art of weaving, Pallas herself. With her bobbins she wove such wonderful pictures of the Loves of the Gods that Pallas, consciously surpassed, struck her. Arachne, incensed at the humiliation of the blow, and unable to avenge it, hanged herself. Whereupon the goddess, relenting, and with intent to gratify Arachne's passionate love of weaving, transformed her into a spider and bade her weave on for ever.
We also have pictorial evidence about the art of tapestry-weaving in ancient Greece and Rome. In one of the early vase-paintings appear Penelope and Telemachus and a tapestry loom. Telamachus watches his mother as she weaves. While the loom differs in some respects from the medieval and modern high-warp loom, the details of the illustration make it certain that the loom, is a tapestry loom, and that the fabric being constructed is not a damask, or a brocade, or an embroidery, but a tapestry. Unfortunately, of the large picture-tapestries of ancient Greece and Rome, none have survived. But from ancient graves have been dug up many samples of small, decorative tapestry bands and trimmings for robes and gowns - some of them Greek, dating back to the IV century B.C., others woven in Romanised Egypt during the first few centuries.
Of these Egyptian dress tapestries - commonly known as Coptic - there are large collections in the Metropolitan and many European museums. Of Byzantine and Saracenic and Moorish dress tapestries in silk, we also have many samples, thus bridging the long interval between Roman and Gothic tapestries.
A favourite theme of the tapestry-weavers of the XIV and XV centuries was the Nine Heroes (Preux) - three pagan, Hector, Alexander, Caesar; three Hebrew, David, Joshua, Judas MaccabŠus; three Christian, Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey de Bouillon. A tapestry picturing the Nine Heroes belonged to Louis Duke of Anjou. Two are mentioned in the inventory of his brother Charles V King of France (1364-1380). They also appear among the furnishings of Charles's brothers the Duke of Burgundy and the Duke of Berri - but with a tenth Preux added, the contemporary Hero of the war against England, Bertrand du Guesclin. A contemporary poem preserved in a manuscript in the BibliothŔque Nationale, reads:
Puisqu'il est mort, qu'il soit mis en la table De Machabee, premier preux de renom, De Josue, David le raisonable, D'Alexandre, d'Hector et Absalon, D'Arthus, Charles, Godefroi de Bouillon. Or soit nomme' le dixieme des lorz Bertrand le Preux qui servit en prodon L'ecu d'azur a trois fleurs de lia d'or.
Which in English reads:
Since he is dead, let him be put in the table Of MaccabŠus, first Hero in renown, Of Joshua, David the wise, Alexander, Hector, and Absalom, Arthur, Charles, Godfrey de Bouillon. Now let be named the tenth of them Bertrand the Preux who like a hero saved The azure shield with three golden fleur-de-lis.
This inscription was repeated recently on a Gobelin tapestry picturing the Funeral of Du Guesclin, designed by M. Edouard Toudouze for the Courthouse of Rennes. Perhaps it may be well to explain here that Judas MaccabŠus was the great Jewish warrior who, in the second century B.C., defeated in quick successsion the Syrian generals, Appollonius, Seron, Gorgias, and the regent Lysias - victories that led to the temporary independence of Judea.
Of all the Gothic Hero tapestries, however, practically none have survived. In the Historic Museum of Bale in Switzerland there is a XV century fragment (illustrated on page 31 of Guffrey SeiziŔme) showing Judas MaccabŠus, Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey de Bouillon, side by side afoot on a verdure background, framed in long ribbons bearing inscriptions in German and each displayed his coat of arms on shield or banner. This tapestry makes easy the identification of Arthur and Godfrey de Bouillon in the Triumph of Christ tapestries at Brussels and Saragossa, and in the Charlemagne tapestry owned by Mr. George Blumenthal (See plates nos. 370, 371). In the fragment discovered some years ago at Saint Maxent, the Heroes are mounted, and each of the six - Joshua, David, Hector, Caesar, Arthur, Godfrey de Bouillon - carries a blazoned shield that would identify him even if his name were not inscribed beside him. Some of them have a six-line exploitation of their prowess in verse. One of the pieces begins: "I am Hector of Troy where fear was great".