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The great tapestries of France

Spoiler alert: strictly speaking, the Bayeux ‘tapestry’ is not one them

Some of the world’s greatest art can be found throughout France. The Gothic masterpieces secreted away in magnificent cathedrals, the baroque gems, the Renaissance treasures and the Impressionist confections by Monet, Manet, Sisley and Renoir. But ancient tapestries are too often the poor relation, despite being older, politically and technically often ahead of their time and providing searing commentary about the socio-political history.

What is tapestry?

In Europe there was a boom in tapestry weaving between the 14th and 18th centuries. This was a period when heavy, elaborate wall coverings were commissioned by the nobility to adorn the interiors of their residences, which were invariably spartan by modern standards.

These tapestries had various benefits, keeping draughts at bay, insulating cold rooms, adding decoration and providing thought provoking images to contemplate. And, being extraordinarily costly, they were a useful signal of one’s immense wealth. Henry VIII reputedly had 2,000 tapestries and, in keeping with the times, tapestries were considered portable items that were rolled up and transported between residences.

Wool was the primary material used, with silk useful for adding detail and depth. Costly metal threads were mostly used in smaller items such as bible covers or purses: small items that would be on one’s person and which would always catch the eye of admirers.

We list below just a handful of the most important and most exquisite tapestries in France. Only one is of global renown, instantly recognisable, and there are no prizes for guessing which one that is.

Bayeux Tapestry

OK, strictly speaking this is not a tapestry but an embroidery - but let’s not split hairs. It is still a magnificent work of art, a ground breaking piece of propaganda that still resonates today.

The tapestry, sometimes known as the Queen Mathilde’s tapestry (she was William’s wife) or the Telle du Conquest, was created in the aftermath of 1066. It’s a bit of a one-off, recounting a specific event rather than just portraying an idyllic rural scene and it stretches for 70 metres. Clearly it was never going to be part of someone’s everyday soft furnishings. It was never intended to be offset by a few well chosen scatter cushions…

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

This epic re-telling of the Battle of Hastings, and the wider picture before and after the battle, never fails to stir the imagination. The details are all there, from the loading of men and horses ahead of the invasion to the stripping of armour from the dead, along with telling images designed to reinforce the desired message of crushing authority to William the Conqueror’s new subjects. Various images of animals and other figures run through the decorative borders, some references to Aesop’s fables, others providing a pictorial sub-text to the main story above.

It was a political statement, as powerful in its day as a presidential tweet or a celebrity instagram post today. Amongst many notable features is the way some of the action spills over into the borders, thus creating extra drama to the narrative. This technique is a familiar device with modern comic book artists of the modern age.

Musée de la Tapisserie in Bayeux
Musée de la Tapisserie in Bayeux

The tapestry is exhibited in the Musée de la Tapisserie in Bayeux, Normandy, having survived centuries of rough and tumble treatment, not to mention the French Revolution, the Great War and World War Two.

The Bayeux Tapestry is coming to the UK in 2020, following lengthy discussions on both sides of the Channel and an announcement by President Macron. During its residency in London, possibly at the V&A or the British Museum, it will be digitised by a joint Franco-British team. If the past successes of major exhibitions like Tutankhamun or Monet are anything to go by, it promises to be a sure-fire hit.

The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir
The Lady and the Unicorn: À mon seul désir

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries

‘La Dame à la Licorne’ is one of the most important, and refined, series of tapestries in the world. They are medieval masterpieces, thought to have been created in the Netherlands for the Le Viste family, who were wealthy though not from the classes of the nobility. Jean Le Viste married into the nobility and died in 1500, around the time the tapestries were produced. It’s possible his wife, Geneviève, is the lady in the celebrated tapestries.

The six tapestries are woven in wool and silk and depict the five senses: touch, taste, smell, sight and hearing. The sixth, the largest, is known as ‘A Mon Seul Désir’ and is said to represent love.

Having lingered in poor conditions at Boussac castle for many years, the tapestries were discovered in the mid-19thcentury. Today they are displayed at the Musée de Cluny in Burgundy.

On display in Musée de Cluny
On display in Musée de Cluny

Tapestries of the royal châteaux

Think baroque tapestries and you’ll no doubt think of dramatic castles, sweeping pastoral scenes and forested hunting scenes. Around 1670 Louis XIV decided he wanted to add a little vibrancy to the interior colour schemes of his various châteaux and so commissioned a set of tapestries for the royal household. They became known as the ‘Tenture de Maisons Royals’ and were a set of twelve, depicting a month of the year at one of twelve royal châteaux.

Designed by Charles Le Brun, the court painter, their scale, brilliance and over the top nature matched perfectly the flamboyance of the Sun King’s reign.

Tenture des Maisons Royales depicting the Palace of Versailles
Tenture des Maisons Royales depicting the Palace of Versailles

Apocalypse Tapestry

A magnificent mélange of culture, history and Christian art, this is a depiction of the Book of Revelation on an epic scale. Coming in at an extraordinary 100 metres long it is displayed in the Château d'Angers in the Loire valley. Originally the tapestry was 150 metres long, large chunks having deteriorated over the centuries or been lost during the French Revolution.

Commissioned by Duke Louis I of Anjou, work began in Paris in 1373 when 35 weavers set to work over seven arduous years. The six sections are each sub-divided into seven individual tableaux. Collectively they pack a huge punch – just as dramatic as the Bayeux Tapestry but with an altogether different raison d’être.

The Apocalypse Tapestries on display at the Château of Angers
The Apocalypse Tapestries on display at the Château of Angers

Both religious and political, it's a key eye opener in to the tensions of the Hundred Years War, and remains the oldest French piece of its era to survive into restoration.

The setting is dramatic; a specially created room with carefully controlled dim lighting and atmospheric conditions protect the delicate fabric. Up close the colours are still vibrant and the images of the Apocalypse are grotesque and unnerving.

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