What Are Medieval Tapestries?

Britt Archer

Tapestries are a form of art that dates back centuries, in which pictures and scenes are woven into fabric form. Tapestries today are largely used as decorative items, but they served a much larger purpose in the middle ages, a period of time roughly defined as the years between the 5th and the 15th century. Medieval tapestries weren't just delightful works of art, they also served to keep drafts out of buildings.

Medieval tapestries were woven using hand looms.
Medieval tapestries were woven using hand looms.

Medieval tapestries were hand-woven using a loom and threads of various fibers. The most common fibers used in these medieval art pieces were wool, flax, cotton and silk. Availability and cost played a large part in the materials used. Since tapestries were made by hand and required a great deal of skill to create, the cost was fairly high, and individuals or institutions had to have wealth to afford them or the skill to make the tapestries for themselves.

Flax plant fibers were one of the common types of fibers used in medieval tapestries.
Flax plant fibers were one of the common types of fibers used in medieval tapestries.

Construction techniques used on medieval tapestries are still in use today. The basic Middle Ages tapestry was first sketched out, with that design used as the pattern for the piece. A large loom was threaded with threads running up and down, called the warp. The weft threads were woven horizontally over the warp threads to create the artwork.

The intricacy of medieval tapestries was carefully planned, with the number of colors used and the number of color changes found in each tapestry known in advance of the actual weaving. Preparation of the warp threads, from harvesting and spinning all the way to dying and finishing, was executed with the final tapestry in mind. Fiber artists who created the tapestries manipulated shades with their choices of fiber and color to achieve the desired effect.

Scenes depicted on tapestries reflect the history of the time. Medieval history is fraught with religious conflict and changing societal demands and ideals. Medieval tapestries exist that depict Christian imagery, scenes from mythology and notable events or figures of the era. The artwork used to create these woven works of art also varies from location to location. Tapestries from Asia have vastly different subject matter and style than those from western Europe.

Like society, art was undergoing immense changes in the medieval time period. Artists were discovering and implementing depth and shading at this time. These changes carried over into the fiber art world and can be seen in tapestries of the era. Medieval tapestries used two primary forms of shading to create the illusion and richness of depth: hachure and hatching. Hachure uses triangular shapes to give the appearance of a three-dimensional object while hatching uses various shades of the same hue.

Examples of medieval tapestries exist in museums and personal collections throughout the world. Fiber art guilds, weaver's guilds, and historical societies all have a vested interest in preserving these artistic gems for future generations. A local medieval society or art museum can provide a wealth of information about medieval tapestries.

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