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Elizabethan England

by Sara Stone

Living as most of us do in rooms that are warm, comfortably furnished, and with windows large enough to offer a view of some kind, we tend to think of wall decoration as a bonus, something that pleases the eye and makes the rooms in which we live and work more pleasant. However, in the days when rooms were cold and comfortless and windows virtually non-existent, wall decoration served a more vital purpose: it created a setting, an environment. Tapestry weaving was by the fourteenth century a recognized European craft.

Wall decorations of colored wool were ideal for the rooms in medieval castles and manor houses, since the wide, high walls were broken only by narrow doors and a few high windows. By using tapestries specially woven to hang between windows and over doors, it was possible to cover entire walls of bare stone or rough plaster. Suspended a foot or two from the surface of the wall, tapestries reduced condensation and drafts, as well as provided some insulation against the cold that stone walls store and radiate. Hung from the ceiling, tapestries could be used to make small rooms within larger ones. Since they were strong, light, and flexible, tapestries could be moved without difficulty.

Scholars define the Renaissance as the period from the fourteenth century through the sixteenth century. Early tapestries of this period were usually adapted from manuscripts, and weavers were free to create images as they percieved them . According to some authorities, the purpose of Renaissance pictorial art in woven tapestry was to produce illusions of what reality should be. It was actually more intellectual, abstract, and scientific, with perfection of form, precision of method, and creative grandeur as its objective for the viewer.

The most popular subjects were tournaments and battles, and incidents from the Bible, mythology, and legend. Rivaling these were reminders of the outdoors: scenes of the chase, work in the fields, and fruits and flowers in gardens, meadows, and woods.

During the Renaissance, easel painting came to transcend the other arts, giving painters license not only to design tapestries but also to deny weavers freedom of interpretation, for the instructions were much more precise than the cartoons from which medieval weavers worked. Flat patterns that covered the entire surface were replaced by landscapes with large skies and low horizons, and by the seventeenth century tapestries were little more than woven imitations of paintings. Tapestries also suffered with the advent of lower ceilings, larger windows, and competition from painted and printed fabrics, and wallpaper and prints, which were less expensive. Also, thanks to less drafty windows and walls, smaller rooms, and more efficient fireplaces, tapestries were no longer essential for insulation.

Tapestries continued to be produced until late in the eighteenth century and could be found in at least one of the principal rooms in most large houses, where they were merely ornamental. Nature and landscapes remained popular motifs, and the chase, such as "The Hunt of the Unicorn, "was a staple subject until the end.

By the end of the eighteenth century, demand for tapestries had dwindled to almost nothing, and the last of the workshops had closed. Existing tapestries were taken down and stored in attics. The story of tapestry as a widely used form of decoration would have ended there had it not been for the revival of interest in medieval life and art in the nineteenth century.



Works Consulted

*Life's Picture History of Modern Man. New York: Time Incorporated, 1951.

This book was a good source for pictures of tapestries. I found many good examples from the period of the English Renaissance, including The Hunt of the Unicorn.

Rees, Ronald. "The Outdoors in Tapestry" The Magazine Antiques September 1993:338-346.

I was able to find great information on how tapestries were used and where they were located. The article gave a good history of the use and popularity of tapestry.

"Tapestry." Internet Web Site http://www.io.com/~tapestry

This source did a good job of explaining the purpose of Renaissance tapestry work. It gave inforamtion on what the objective for the viewer was.

"Tapestry." Microsoft Encarta. CD-ROM. Funk and Wagnalls Corporation, 1994.

This gave me a defintion of the time period of the Renaissance, and explained how weavers created their works in the earlier times of the Renaissance.

*Source for visual

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