Medieval and Renaissance Tapestry: A Guide and Companion

by Tina Kane


What does it mean to read a tapestry? You can look at this in two ways. First, you can consider tapestry in its historical context, as it has evolved over time. Or, second, you can regard tapestry as a visual language frozen in time. We will look at tapestry in both these ways. This book intends to incorporate both a diachronic (historical context) approach and a synchronic approach (as visual language without historical context). (1)  Thus, we will look at tapestry within the course of history, and then we will look at exemplary individual tapestries, both in the context of their individual histories, and as visual experiences in themselves.

We’ll begin with the historical context but, first, we need to define some terms. Here is a provisional definition of tapestry: “Tapestry is a simple weave structure.”

That’s our first definition and our most important one. There is a structural element, the warp (vertical), and a decorative element, the weft (horizontal). The weft goes over and under each warp and then reverses the pattern in the next row, as you see in the images below. The weaver beats down the weft to conceal the warp. (With this definition in mind we can see, for instance, that The Bayeux Tapestry is actually embroidered, although people continue to think of it as a tapestry. This confusion might have arisen because of the narrative content of the Bayeux Tapestry, something we will consider later.)

Here is a more technical definition of tapestry: “weft faced plain weave with a discontinuous weft,” meaning that the weft does not go from selvage to selvage (or end to end), but rather the images are built from adjacent sections of different colored weft. Image and structure are integrally connected. (This is unlike embroidery, where a ground cloth is first woven, and then the embroidery superimposed as the design

image002  image005 image006 Image 1: Warps (vertical) with two adjacent blocks of colored weft (horizontal) woven alternately over and under the warps.


Now that we have a definition, we can begin with an historical overview of tapestry to provide a context for the medieval period in Western Europe (which will be our main interest). (2)

But first, to get a better sense of the wonderful variety of tapestry that we will be considering, take a look at the following tapestries from different cultures and eras and note just how remarkably diverse they are (using the simple technique outlined above).

image004Fragment, woven between the 2nd and 3rd century BCE; it was found in a mass grave. Collection of the Xinjiang Museum, Urumqi, China.



Tunic, 7th–9th century CE, Peru; Nazca-Wari, Tapestry, Camelid hair , H. 21 1⁄2 in. (54.6 cm). Gift of George D. Pratt, 1929. Metropolitan Museum of Art Accession number: 29.146.23



Wearing Blanket, 1840–60, United States, Arizona or New Mexico, Navajo Wool, H. 60 x W. 71 in. (180.3 x 152.4 cm). The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, MMA: 197.206.1038.


Kilim, ca. 1800 CE, Central Anatolia, Wool, cotton, and silver thread, 13 ft.3/8 in. x 5 ft. 4 1⁄4 in. (4.2 x 1.6 m) Purchase, Rebecca and Richard Lindsey. Gift, 2006. MMA: 2006.9




Rank Badge with Lion, Ming dynasty (1368–1644), 15th century CE, China
Silk and metallic thread tapestry (kesi) 15 1⁄2 x 14 1⁄2 in. (39.4 x 36.8cm) Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. C. Y. Chen and Anonymous Gifts, 1988. MMA: 1988.154.2



Fragment from a Coptic Hanging, 5th century CE, Egypt, Linen, wool; plain weave, tapestry-weave. Textile: L. 40 15/16 in. (104 cm) W. 24 13/16 in. Gift of George F. Baker, 1890, MMA: Accession Number: 90.5.905A



Fabulous Beast (Fragment of a Tapestry), ca. 1420–30, German (Upper Rhineland; Basel). Linen warp with wool weft, 28 1⁄4 x 33 in. (73 x 85.1 cm). The Cloisters Collection, 1990 MMA: 1990.21



The Unicorn in Captivity, ca. 1495–150, South Netherlandish, Wool warp, wool, silk, silver, and gilt wefts. 12 ft. 1 in. x 99 in. (368 m x 251.5 cm). Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1937, MMA: 37.80



Angeli Laudantes 1898. John Henry Dearle (English, 1860–1932). From a cartoon painted in 1894 by John Henry Dearle. Manufactured by Morris & Company Weaving workshop at Merton Abbey Tapestry Works (British, founded 1881). Woven by John Martin. Tapestry: dyed wool and silk on undyed cotton warp (15 warps per inch; 5-6 per cm.) Overall: 92 1⁄2 x 80 in.




Modern Tapestry, Gunta Stölzl, Slit Tapestry Red/Green, 1927/28
Cotton, silk, linen 150 x Some Ancient History(235 x 203.2 cm). Rogers Fund, 2008.MOMA: Accession Number: 2008. 8


As you can see from the examples above, tapestry has been with us a long time, and in many varieties. The first recorded use of the word tapestry, or ta-pe-ja, is found in Mycenaean Greece (c.1,600 – c.1,100 BCE), composed in Linear B syllabic script. However, what are called “warp weighted looms” were probably developed much earlier during the Neolithic period (10,200- 4,500 BCE); the weavers used loom weights to put tension on the warp to enable them to thread in the weft material. This allowed for simple tapestry weaving and, indeed, by 566 BCE, history tells us that giant figurative tapestries recounting the victory of Athena over Enceladus and the Giants were ritually prepared by young women for the celebration of the festival of Athena, the Panathenaea.

Lekythos, ca. 550–530 BCE.; Archaic, black-figure, Greek, Attic, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Terracotta H. 6 3⁄4 in. (17.15 cm). Fletcher Fund, 1931 (31.11.10)


This tapestry for Athena coincides with the dating of the Greek vase above, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where you can see a warp weighted loom and young women weaving, spinning, and weighing yarns.


Since this book is intended primarily for an English-speaking audience, we will concentrate on European tapestry (especially medieval narrative tapestry), which is the type that the reader is most likely to encounter in museums, art collections, and public spaces. But bear in mind that the world of tapestry is a very large one and we will be traveling through only a small portion of it.



(1)  diachronic / synchronic. (Gk, chronos, time; dia-, through, across; syn-, with, together). A diachronic study or analysis concerns itself with the evolution and change over time of that which is studied; it is roughly equivalent to historical. A synchronic study or analysis, in contrast, limits its concern to a particular moment of time. The extent to which a synchronic study really does, as it were, take a frozen slice of history for study is itself not absolute. In linguistics, for instance, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) thought it necessary to take a snapshot of language at a particular time and effectively produce a freeze-frame of it in order to understand its historical development. By approaching it in this synchronic way, he assumed it would be easier to see what was eternal and universal.
(2) Most tapestry in the middle ages was woven with the warp perpendicular to the design. It was much easier to construct images of drapery and buildings without having to join between the warps – a laborious process at best. The downside to this was that the tapestry was hanging by the weaker decorative element, the weft. Over time this causes problems for conservators, as holes or gaps open up because of the stress on the fabric.