Tapestry Tales – Weaving the Threads of Destiny

The Failure of Sir Gawaine: Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine at the Ruined Chapel, Number 4 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall
The Failure of Sir Gawaine: Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine at the Ruined Chapel, Number 4 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall

The Arming and Departure of the Knights. Number 2 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall – detail

Historically tapestry is a fabric heavy with meaning and intention.

During the late nineteenth century, at the advent of what is now called Modernism, English designer and social activist William Morris (1834- 1896) rebelled against the ugliness of his countries ever expanding industrial age, becoming an advocate not only for a different work ethic, but also a new aesthetic.

In the age of Arts & Crafts William Morris believed that human beings of every race and culture should be able, in an atmosphere of peace, simplicity and grace, gain pleasure from their everyday surroundings.

He said ‘The age is ugly…if a man nowadays wants to do anything beautiful, he must choose the epoch which suits him and identify himself with that’.

He looked back to the medieval age for inspiration for establishing his contemporary tapestry workshop and also began a quest to expand knowledge through the arts.

His commission of six tapestries for William Knox D’arcy’s Dining Room at Stanmore Hall in Middlesex illustrated the story of the Holy Grail quest, as told in Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur.

They took five years to weave and are considered among the most significant tapestry works made during the nineteenth century when romanticism was at its height.

The Failure of Sir Gawaine: Sir Gawaine and Sir Uwaine at the Ruined Chapel, Number 4 of the Holy Grail tapestries woven by Morris & Co. 1891-94 for Stanmore Hall

The images recorded paint a beguiling picture of lovely maidens and dashing knights in a style that was very appealing.

The original tapestries were sold off after 1920 and are now scattered in various private collections and galleries around the world.

How sweet are looks that ladies bend
On whom their favours fall!
For them I battle till the end,
To save from shame and thrall

Tapestry and embroidery are both forms of textile art.

However both have very different techniques and the difference is not always understood.

Tapestry Book Cover, Sheldon Workshops 1614

Tapestry is a thick textile fabric in which weft threads are woven (originally by hand) into warp threads fixed lengthwise onto a loom and pictures or designs are created as the weaver progresses.

Embroidery is the enrichment of a flat foundation using needle, coloured silks and cottons, gold and silver thread or other extraneous material.

From the eleventh century onward in Europe tapestry gradually became a great symbol of status and influence.

By the fourteenth century it was the greatest of all the forms of artistic expression.

Subsequently tapestries became spoils of war, as knights traveled around Europe and also during the early crusades of European knights into the Holy Land.

Tapestries were often woven in sets to enrich early Christian church interiors edifying worship by illustrating biblical stories. They dramatized the lives of saints and martyrs reinforcing and demonstrating the tenets of Christian belief.

They also supported other image art forms such as stained glass windows and statuary.


The Fates in antiquity represented the personification of the inescapable destiny of man.

Layer upon layer of meaning was built up using symbolism to illustrate the writings of medieval Christian mystics and others.

It is important in our understanding of why this was so is that the majority of the population was for centuries totally illiterate.

Teaching through imagery was how they gained an understanding of the world they lived in and their heritage. Their visual awareness was more than likely much more acute than ours is today.

In Greek Mythology the three Goddesses of Destiny and Fate were dressed in draped white cloth.

They were the so called ‘three fates’, an image that has long been captured in many formats depicting them weaving the threads of destiny.

Lachesis determined the length of thread – the period of one’s life, Klotho combed the wool and spun the thread of life and Atropos wove the thread into the fabric of one’s actions. So the belief was that it didn’t matter what you decided you couldn’t really escape a pre-ordained destiny. The priests of the temple were the oracles, seers and its no coincidence that clergy are regarded as ‘men of the cloth’.

The qualities that were the special characteristic, or hallmarks of what would become the fully developed European Medieval Art of Tapestry were excellence in design, crispness of execution, wonderful depth of tone, superb richness and exquisite gradations of colour.

Sixteenth Century Tapestry Detail Fabulous Beast

The colours were natural dyes set by mordants such as Alum a necessary process in fixing the dye to the wool. Owning deposits of Alum at that time was a sure way to wealth and in today’s terms could be compared to owning your own oil wells.

Secular themes included ancient tales of Greek and Roman mythology, aspects of love, as well as contemporary conflicts and revelry.

The symbolism attached to numbers and animals was also of major significance assisting in conveying a message, moral or otherwise, about the glory and welcome abundance of creation.

Designs were created as the weaver progressed out of their imagination or from documentary evidence we have, from about the fourteenth century from a cartone (It. broad sheet of paper) or cartoon (drawing or painting).

Superb ‘Hercules’ Tapestry from Arras

Some of these very earliest cartoons still in existence were hardly more than sketches and it was quite common for weavers to exercise their own flair by adding a small animal or a particular expression to a face ensuring that each work had its own peculiar characteristics and features.

Some however were by such famous artists as Italian Renaissance master Raphael.

The industry of tapestry-weaving has been in considerable practice in such notable centres as Arras in the 14th and 15th centuries, Brussels in the 15th and 16th, Middelburg and Delft in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Paris during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Down to the present time, the English Cotswolds Workshop of William Sheldon during the 16th century and Mortlake during the 17th century, probably standing foremost; from them the services of experienced workmen equipped with frames and implements were requisitioned and secured at most of the short-lived contemporaneous.

Sheldon’s craftsmen were mainly Dutch protestants fleeing religious persecution.

A tapestry of the ‘Verdure’ type

Flanders remained a key centre for European tapestry production while in Germany and Switzerland a cottage industry grew up producing smaller works on a commercial basis.

These workshops produced an abundance of pastoral scenes and what we know as the ‘verdure type’ one that has predominantly blue and green colouring of landscapes with streams and waterfalls and an emphasis on trees, foliage and fauna.


The Lady and the Unicorn – Sight

In the late medieval period of the 15th century the now famous millefleurs tapestries appeared characterized by their backgrounds being made of hundreds of tiny flowers. millefleurs is French for “a thousand flowers” and as a background for a tapestry they were considered the height of fashion and sophistication.

Tapestries sparkle with a profusion of amazingly intricate blooms providing the perfect foil for scenes depicting late Medieval hunts and courtly love.

Although the precise origin of the millefleurs motif is open to speculation, one possible suggestion is that this technique was an attempt to preserve year round images of fleeting flowers. Speculation aside, the thousand flowers style clearly continues to delight viewers, even after all of these centuries.

The most famous of these are the six tapestries in the series known as La Dame á la Licorne. They have been on display at the National Musee du Moyen Age (formerly Cluny) at Paris since 1883.

This group of tapestries features an enchanting combination of deep red ground strewn with an abundance of flowers. Woven from a combination of woollen, silk and gold thread these fabulous wall hangings have exercised an almost universal fascination on all those who encounter them.


The Lady and the Unicorn – Sound

During the nineteenth century Prosper Merimé Inspector of Historic Monuments drew the attention of authorities to the beauty and importance of the tapestries after finding them hanging on damp walls in the rat ridden Chateau at Boussac in 1835.

They were still there in 1844 when renowned novelist of her day, George Sand mentioned them in her novel Jeanne and endeavoured to use her influence to have them removed to safety.

They were still there in 1853 when Baron Aucapitaine drew the attention of Edmond du Sommerard, Curator of the Cluny Museum at Paris who negotiated long and hard to secure them and they were officially inaugurated in 1883. Every detail delights the eye; their superb contrasting colours create a unique impression of harmony.

The background is made up of flowers and trees found in France at that time. They are combined with familiar animals such as foxes, dogs and ducks all mingling with exotic creatures such as panthers, cheetahs and lions. They are meant to intrigue and they do. Our gaze lingers longest, and perhaps with a curious pleasure on that mythological beast with the body of a horse, the head of a goat and a horn the unicorn. He is worth an essay of his own.


Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry – Taste

To this we must add the beautiful centrally focused Lady. Each time she is depicted in an ordinary every day attitude although she is dressed in different costumes historically so it is she who creates the aura of mystery, one that has endured. Who was this lady? Did she represent some famous person or is she…as some scholars claim, an allegory of the Blessed Virgin.

Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry – Touch

Does the crescent motif repeated constantly in each work suggest a fascination with the East or is it an allusion to her being aligned with the Greek goddess Artemis (Roman Diana).

History has since destroyed most theories and many questions still remain obscure. What we do know is that the Coat of Arms belong to a family from the region of Lyon. Jean le Viste had a distinguished record of service to the King as President of the Court of Aids. The tapestries proclaim the high position he held and reflect his glory.

The lion and the unicorn, in some instances, appear to have been just plucked off a coat of arms to flank the figures and give them authority. Each composition is skilfully rendered and the beauty of their draughtsmanship is striking. Brocades, velvets, silks and jewels have all been rendered in wool with surprising exactitude and the detailing of the mille fleurs or thousands of flowers, is impressive.

Five of the tapestries represent the important senses; smell, hearing, taste, touch and sight. Five is a powerful number in symbolism.

Early cultures believed the five senses were a facet of the creation of man and sacred, to the extent to which you consider a human being to be sacred, or at least potentially so.


Lady and the Unicorn Tapestry – Desire

Earth, air, fire and water are all basic constituents of the temporal realm with the Spirit or God at its epicenter.

Then there is the sixth tapestry with its tent studded with golden tear drops, its flaps framing the brocade be-gowned and be-jewelled young lady drawing all eyes to the central scene where she is replacing jewels in a casket lending credence to the moral significance of the inscription a mon seul désir…’freedom from the passions provoked by ill controlled senses’.

But is she receiving them or sending them back? Therein lies another story. Two important details still elude researchers; the personality of the artist who designed the tapestries for Jean le Viste and the place where they were woven.


Detail of a woman weaving, John Williams Waterhouse

In the end if you take your needle or work at your pattern it will come out all right and endure, just like the threads of destiny.

Life is like that; one stitch at a time taken patiently. We sleep, but the loom of life never stops, and the pattern which was weaving when the sun went down is weaving when it comes up in the morning**

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept, 2009 – 2016

*Alfred Lord Tennyson – Sir Galahad
**Henry Ward Beecher 1813-1887

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