Once a sign of incredible wealth, antique tapestry wall hangings have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity recently, thanks to their brilliance and beauty. The tapestry tradition has spanned centuries, which means that antique tapestries can be found in an incredible array of textile traditions, shapes, and sizes to fit any budget or decor scheme. This versatility, combined with their incredible beauty, perhaps helps to explain why major design publications like Architectural Digest has positioned antique tapestries as one of 2022’s top trends for interior decor.
What makes these woven works so compelling? Here we’ll explore the field of antique tapestries, from their origins to their various styles. We also consider some of the top trending types of tapestries and close with some starting tips on how best to display and care for these antique textile works so that they can continue to augment your interiors for years to come.
The History of the Antique Tapestry
Setting aside the eleventh-century Bayeux Tapestry, widely considered one of history’s earliest (probably dating back to 1077), and most monumental, embroidered works, antique tapestries started to gain popularity around the fourteenth century. During this period, such medieval-era tapestry wall hangings were a blend of both beauty and function. When hung in the interiors of castles to churches, these artful woven works would not only provide visual intrigue and narrative, but also insulation from cold, damp conditions.
As the industry for antique tapestries grew, so too did their elegance and their storytelling. Silk combined with golden and silvered threads elevated tapestry’s artistry and prestige. At the same time, artists who excelled in the medium began to conjure a wider array of themes and subjects in their tapestries. Classical mythology, Biblical narratives, major battles; whatever the subject, the leading makers of antique tapestries across Europe during this period tailored their works to each patron’s demands and desires.
Accordingly, the market for tapestries accelerated rapidly. From the fourteenth-century Duke of Burgundy, who was rumored to own innumerable tapestries, to sixteenth-century noblewoman and French queen consort Catherine de’ Medici, whose Valois Tapestries series is noted today as one of the best sets of Brussels tapestries to survive, the Renaissance saw aristocrats commissioning tapestries at an exponential rate. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that even major artists like famed Italian Renaissance painter Raphael sought to get in on the tapestry game by creating a series of cartoons for tapestries for Pope Leo X.
Key European centers became renowned for their tapestry workshops, and today many of these historic centers continue to be coveted sources for collectors of antique tapestries. Let’s look at some of the top trending categories in antique tapestries by geographic region.
Flemish Antique Tapestries
Setting the standard for exceptional tapestry creation, Flemish makers earned an international reputation among patrons and artists alike. Central to these Flanders-made fabric works were the cities of Brussels and Tournai, both of which were hubs of antique tapestry production. The allure of these makers stemmed from their exceptional precision and inventive approach to designs. From rich millefleurs motifs to grand scenes from mythology, Flemish tapestries from around the 15th and 16th centuries captivated audiences on a grand scale.
French Antique Tapestries
Not to be outdone by their northern neighbor, France also boasted two the core tapestry centers of Paris and Arras, in far northern France near the Belgian border. Arras tapestry makers gained prominence early on – some of the Duke of Burgundy’s pieces, for example, were produced there – but later collapsed in the midst of political turmoil in the later years of the fourteenth century. Paris, however, rose to prominence as the centuries progressed. Contributing to this success was King Henry IV’s creation of the Gobelins Manufactory around 1600. Led by two artisans imported from Flanders, Gobelins grew rapidly to become one of the most respected tapestry makers in Europe.
Asian Antique Tapestries and Thangkas
A counterpoint to the weighty motifs and narratives created in Western European tapestry workshops can be found in the delicate, almost ethereal tapestries created in the courts of Imperial China. The tradition of such spectacular works that pair elegant depictions with artful calligraphy dates far back in Chinese history, yet continued to play a crucial role in the more modern Qing Dynasty. Meanwhile, the Buddhists of Tibet were creating their own tapestry tradition in the form of the thanka, or thangka. These large, loomed textiles perhaps originated as early as the eleventh century and typically depict aspects of Buddhist practice rendered in rich color and luxurious materials.
Contemporary Weavings that Recall Antique Tapestries
The legacy of the tapestry is not isolated to the past generations of Flanders or China. Many contemporary makers of tapestries have continued the conversation by adding even more artistic approaches to the tradition. From the streamlined aesthetic of Frank Stella or Anni Albers tapestries to the cultural commentary imbued in works like those by Filippina artist Anina Magsaysay-Ho, tapestry continues to be a vital part of the art world today.
Hanging Out with Antique Tapestries
The realm of antique tapestries offers a fascinating journey through history, as well as incredible potential for adding textile-based arts to your collection. Whether your decor is built upon a boho chic aesthetic or trends toward the more tastefully refined, the remarkable variety within the thriving market for antique tapestries means almost any style can be found to suit your space.
Before we go, we wanted to impart some final thoughts to share on perhaps the most important question: how to hang an antique tapestry? Some general rules of thumb to keep in mind when you are preparing to hang your antique tapestry:
An adhesive strip is not going to support the weight of an eight by ten tapestry. Make sure you are assessing the dimensions and weight of your tapestry so that the means of hanging it – whether it is nail, bracket, or mounting bar – is secure.
Older fabrics can stretch and even rip if faced with undue stress or pulling, so you should also keep in mind the age of your tapestry before you hang it.
Keep in mind that fabrics can fade if exposed to extreme sunlight or can warp or discolor if splashed with liquids. For treasured tapestries, you should seek out a placement that keeps them away from direct sun, bubbling radiators, and curious children or pets.
So… Ready to tap into the trending world of antique tapestries? Start seeking out the perfect antique tapestry for your collection today.