Tapestry Weaving

SN 1024 - 1025. 1997 Exhibition Label
Rubens and the Traditions of Tapestries. Author: Francoise Hack

Although the practice of tapestry weaving dates as far back as Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations, the term "tapestry" commonly refers to large pictorial wall hangings produced in the West from the 14th to the 17th century. Early tapestries served the dual purpose of insulation against the cold and decoration. They hung in castles, churches and palaces, and were used as decoration for outdoor celebrations and festivals. Specialized forms were developed to cover doors, windows and wall areas. Because they were easily rolled up and moved, they even hung in the king's tent on the battlefield. Due to extensive labor and costly materials, tapestries were more expensive than paintings. As a result, normally only kings, the church and high nobility could afford them. Towards the end of the 17th century, tapestries were even made to emulate paintings; their borders changed into picture frames, and they were framed in panels on the wall.

Tapestries were usually ordered as a multiple set to decorate a room. The designs were varied and could be narrative, symbolic, decorative or combinations thereof. An artist produced the initial design for a tapestry in the form of small-scale sketches, called bozzetti. Then followed the modello, that could be either a larger detailed drawing or a small painting. The modello was then enlarged into a full-scale cartoon. Two techniques were used for tapestry cartoons: watercolor on paper and oils on canvas. From a series of cartoons the weaver wove sets of tapestries. Multiple sets or pieces could be woven from the same cartoons. The first set was called the editio princeps.

The editio princeps tapestries made from the Rubens cartoons of the Triumph of the Eucharist on display in gallery 2 hang in the convent Las Descalzas Reales in Madrid, Spain. Many partial sets of the Eucharist series were woven after the Rubens cartoons, but the editio princeps remains the only complete set. These later sets were probably made after watercolor copies of the original cartoons, as the original cartoons remained with their commissioner, the Infanta Isabella. The two tapestries, Triumph of Faith and Triumph of the Church, on display in gallery 1, are part of a later set of the Triumph of the Eucharist series woven by Jan Frans van den Hecke (traceable from 1662 to 1700).

Two kinds of looms were used in tapestry weaving, the high warp (haute lisse) and low warp loom (basse-lisse). For both methods the basic lines of the cartoon were transferred to a calque, a piece of transparent oiled paper or canvas. In the high warp technique the lines were again transferred with chalk to the warp threads. By placing mirrors behind the loom and working parallel with the design, the tapestry followed the same direction as the cartoon. In the low warp technique the calque was turned around and placed under the warp. In either technique the tapestry is produced in the right direction, as the weavers worked parallel with the original cartoon set up behind them. Sometimes the painting was cut into strips and used as a calque. The strips were put under the warps of the low warp loom, so that the weaver could follow the design. In this method, since the weaver worked on the back of the tapestry, the result was a mirror image of the cartoon. Letters and numbers were sometimes reversed on the tapestry, either because weavers and designers forgot this technical detail or simply could not read.

The explanation of weaving in the 17th century is based on a description in the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert published in 1771. It poses a problem with regards to the Rubens cartoons: while the cartoons were never cut into strips the tapestries in Madrid are woven in reverse. This led some art historians to conclude that paper cartoons were used for the Madrid tapestries. There is no evidence that Rubens ever made paper cartoons of the Eucharist series, nor is there a reason why the Infanta Isabella would have ordered a second set of cartoons. Most likely, the oils on canvas are the original cartoons, and calques and other techniques were used to guide the weavers.

Weavers almost always wove the design from one side to the other, rather than from top to bottom. This was mainly for practical reasons. The width of the tapestry sometimes doubled the height, and in this way the looms did not need to be built so high.