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The great tapestries of France background image

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.

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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 exquisite tapestries in France. One is of global renown and instantly recognisable, and there are no prizes for guessing which one that is.

Bayeux Tapestry

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
The Bayeux Tapestry

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

The tapestry, sometimes known as 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…

This epic retelling 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 was scheduled to come to the UK in 2020, following lengthy discussions on both sides of the Channel and an announcement by President Macron. However, the tapestry must now undergo conservation work before it eventually travels to the UK, and it's likely to be at least 2024 before it arrives. 

Whilst it's in the UK a new museum will be built to house the tapestry in Bayeaux. During its London residency, 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 tapestries

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries
The Lady and the Unicorn

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-19th century. Today they are displayed at the Musée de Cluny in Burgundy.

Tapestries of the royal châteaux

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

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.

Apocalypse Tapestry

Apocalypse Tapestry
Apocalypse Tapestry

Both religious and political, it's a key eye-opener into 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.