10 Tapestries That Changed The World

There is something quite breathtaking about historical tapestries. The sheer scale of them and the intricacies in the stories they depict is something rarely found today.

Tapestries have been used since at least Hellenistic times. Samples of Greek tapestry have been found preserved in the desert of Tarim Basin dating from the 3rd century BC. Here, I have gathered a selection of 10 famous tapestries which have changed the world and miraculously survived through the centuries.

1 The War of Troy Tapestry

Tapestry with scenes of the war of Troy, Tournai, Belgium, 1475-1490. Museum no.6-1887 Image from the V&A

The War of Troy Tapestry were made in the 15th century and are one of the most important tapestries of its time still in existence. This tapestry is from a much larger original set which showed a medieval version of the history of the Trojan wars. The tapestry has been cut into three vertical sections, with the two left sections being again cut horizontally. When the three parts are together they measure 7 1/2 x 4m. Woven in Tournai, France, the original set consisted of 11 tapestries. Charles the 8th of France hung the set of tapestries at a reception of his marriage to Anne of Brittany in 1491. The whole story of in the 11 tapestries is about the trojan wars.

2 The Överhogdal tapestries


The Överhogdal tapestries were found in the vestry of Överhogdal Church by Jonas Holm in 1909. First believed to date from the Middle Ages, radiocarbon dating tests conducted in 1991 proved that the tapestries were made between 1040 -1170 – the late Viking Age, making them the oldest European Tapestry still in extant. The four surviving sections of the tapestries have 323 figures of people, and 149 animals; all generally moving to the left. The large animals and the smaller human figures seem to rush to a tree, which might be the sacred ash Yggdrasil, a massive tree central to nine worlds in Norse mythology.

3 The Bayeux Tapestry


The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth measuring nearly 70 meters long and depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England. The tapestry is divided into scenes which tell each part of the story. The designs on the Bayeux Tapestry are embroidered rather than woven, so that it is not technically a tapestry. Nevertheless, it has always been called a tapestry, until recently when the proper term Bayeux Embroidery has started to be used. You can read more about the tapestry here.

4 The Apocalypse Tapestry


The Apocalypse Tapestry is a huge set of Medieval French tapestries commissioned by Louis 1st and produced between 1377 and 1382. It tells the story of Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine in colourful images, spread over a number of sections that originally totalled 90 scenes. Although many of the scenes in the story included destruction and death, the account ended with the triumphant success of good, forming an uplifting story. The tapestry was lost and mistreated in the 18th century, however, it was found again in the 19th century when it was fully restored and is now on display at the Chateau d’Angers.

5 Raphael Sistine Chapel tapestries

On the left is the cartoon of the ‘Conversation of the Proconsul’ painted by Raphael. The right shows the woven image of his drawing.

The  Raphael Sistine Chapel tapestries are a series of 10 tapestries, of events taken from the Acts of the Apostles. It was commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515. Raphael completed the designs, painted as full-size cartoons, within a year and it was from these that the finest weavers in Europe, based 1,000 miles away in Brussels, wove their work. It was estimated that each tapestry would have take one loom, one year to complete. The tapestries live in the Vatican, however the V&A were lucky to have four of the tapestries, the only ones in good enough condition to be transported, on display for six weeks in 2010. If you got to see these then, you were incredibly lucky.

6 The New World Tapestry


The New World Tapestry was for a time the largest stitched embroidery in the world,[larger than the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicts English colonisation attempts in Newfoundland, North America, the Guyanas and Bermuda between the years 1583 and 1642, when the English Civil War began. The New World Tapestry, which in its entirety measures 267 ft × 4 ft, consists of twenty-four panels, each of which depicts the narrative of a particular phase in the period between 1583 and 1642. Work began on the tapestries in 1980 and continued for 20 years. The tapestry’s home was the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, however this museum has now closed and the tapestries are in storage.

7 The Cloth of St Gereon


The Cloth of St Gereon is a mural tapestry of a repeat pattern with a decorative motif of a bull being attacked by a griffin, a fantastic creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. It is the second oldest European tapestry in extant behind the Överhogdal tapestries

8 The Unicorn Tapestries


The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries is a series of seven tapestries depicting a group of noblemen and hunters in pursuit of a Unicorn.  It dates back to 1495 – 1505 when Unicorns were common theme in late medieval and renaissance works of art and literature. One of the panels, The Mystic Capture of the Unicorn, only survives in two fragments. The other panels show the pursuit of the Unicorn, the hunters finding and killing it and then the Unicorn in a pen, alive once again!

9 The Jagiellonian Tapestries

Paradise Bliss, Jan de Kempeneer workshop, ca. 1550.

The Jagiellonian Tapestries are a collection of tapestries woven in the Netherlands and Flanders, which originally consisted of 365 pieces assembled by the Jagiellons to decorate the interiors of the royal residence Wawel Castle. It is also known as the Wawel arrases, as the majority of the preserved fabrics are in the possession of the Wawel Castle Museum.

10 Devonshire Hunting Tapestries


The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries are a group of four magnificent Flemish tapestries made between 1430 and 1450. These enormous works, each over 3 metres wide, depicting hunting scenes of boars, bears, swans, otters, deer and falconry. Very few tapestries of this scale and quality of design have survived. The tapestries formerly belonged to the Duke of Devonshire. The 6th Duke described using his ‘spare’ tapestry to insulate the Long Gallery at Hardwick Hall in the 1840s, a practice which, Luckily, saved these rare Gothic hangings from being discarded. Hunting was a common theme for many of the high-born individuals and families who could afford such tapestries.

References: 1, V&A Museum. 2, Medieval Histories, Norse Mythology. 3, Bayeux Tapestry. 4, Wikipedia. 5, The Guardian. 6, Loving Ideas. 7, Wikipedia. 8, The Met, Wikipedia. 9, Revolvy. 10, V&A Museum

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About Nadine

Nadine dabbles in a wide range crafts. If it's pretty and she wants to make it, she'll learn the technique to do so. She is also never without a cup of tea in her hands.