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Botanical References in Tapestries

One of the tapestries in the series

The Hunt of the Unicorn: The Unicorn is Found,

circa 1495-1505

the Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Dear Friends:

Picking up the thread of last month’s newsletter which discussed the historical travels of botanical illustration as an art form, we can take a few stitches to the left as we continue our botanical tapestry.  In fact, speaking of tapestry, which dates back to the ancient Egyptians, floral design was quite an repetitive topic in the middle ages and Renaissance tapestries when needle-workers culled their inspiration from nature and familiar objects.  The most famous needle-worker was Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587) who embroidered small silk squares during her long imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth.

Although Mary Queen of Scots lost her life at the guillotine, she left a legacy of needlework design that included botanical subjects. ??One of the most famous tapestries in the world is Dame a la Licorn (Lady of the Unicorn) which consists of a set of six Flemish tapestries woven around the 1500 in the Flanders in the medieval style of mille fleurs (a thousand flowers.)

Depicting the five senses, the tapestries use backgrounds of small local flowers probably inspired by the practice of strewing roadways with flowers on holidays. These tapestries are housed in the Cluny Museum in Paris, France.  One of these tapestries is shown above.

The success of decorative tapestry can be partially explained by its portability (Le Corbusier once called tapestries “nomadic murals”). Kings and noblemen could roll up and transport tapestries from one residence to another. In churches, they were displayed on special occasions. Tapestries were also draped on the walls of castles for insulation during winter, as well as for decorative display.

Detail of The Family of Henry VIII, now at Hampton Court Palace, c. 1545

Oil on canvas, 141 x 355 cm Left to Right: Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour

In the Middle Ages and renaissance, a rich tapestry panel woven with symbolic emblems, mottoes, or coats of arms called a baldachin, canopy of state or cloth of state was hung behind and over a throne as a symbol of authority. The seat under such a canopy of state would normally be raised on a dais as we see in the detail of the Family of Henry VIII above.

Tapestry designs were the most widely commissioned art form during the Renaissance and probably because of this we see a shift from the previous traditional tapestry designs to include rich borders and garlands of flowers that began to characterize the highly colored style of the  period.

Tapestries created during the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) are considered to be among the rarest especially those created by the house of Les Gobelins because of its association with the monarchy.  Les Gobelins produced thematically linked tapestries among which is the famous  “Child Gardeners.” The mid-seventeenth century was a period where themes featuring greenery and foliage became popular.

Formal subjects gave way to romantic landscapes in the eighteenth century.  By the later part of that century, function gave way to the beauty of decorative value and tapestries were created from the designs of well-known artists for beauty.   It is an interesting side note that botanical paintings of this period were also being commissioned to record beautiful garden specimens for beauty sake — again practicality giving way to beauty.

Tapestry with monogram “SA” of King Sigismund II Augustus of Poland, Brussels, c. 1555. Part of famous Jagiellonian Tapestries, also known as the Wawel Tapestries or Wawel Arrases.

It is true that the main appeal of tapestries are their connection to religion and history.  Although they cover a wide range of themes that include the rise and fall of nations, their combination of artistic excellence and history contributes to their particular glory.  There are many famous tapestries, each a unique work of art and all with botanical reference to some degree or another.  It is just one more way in which nature, its meanings and its uses, was documented over time.

Join us next month as we discuss

Flowers & Medieval Manuscripts

God Bless.


List of famous tapestries


2 Responses to “Botanical References in Tapestries”

  1. Susan says:

    I enjoyed reading about tapestries, and especially seeing the baldachin in the painting of Henry VIII and family. The amazing use of flower themes in design continues to amaze me and ties into the design of William Morris in the woodblock section.

  2. So glad you enjoyed this month’s letter. What a real treat to see these tapestries in person. The list above of famous tapestries is enough to spur your desires for travel. Enjoy.