In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section European Tapestries

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Designs and Designers
  • Production, Weavers, and Entrepreneurs
  • Patronage, Collecting, and Display
  • Collection Catalogues
  • Tapestry Conservation

Renaissance and Reformation European Tapestries
Lorraine Karafel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0467


Tapestry, the most costly and coveted art form in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, has long fascinated scholars. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, researchers delved into archival sources and studied extant tapestries to produce sweeping introductions to the medium. The study of tapestry, however, fell outside mainstream art history, with tapestry too often seen as a less important “decorative art” rather than a “fine art.” , Also, tapestry did not fit easily into an art history that prioritized one master, as the making of a set of large-scale tapestries required a team of collaborators, including the designer, cartoon painters, and weavers, as well as a producer/entrepreneur and, often, a patron. Scholarship on European tapestries in the Early Modern period, nevertheless, flourished. By the late 20th century art historians turned attention to the “decorative arts” and tapestry specialists produced exciting new research illuminating aspects of design, production, and patronage, as well as tapestry’s crucial role in the larger narrative of art and cultural history. In 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s landmark exhibition and catalogue, Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence, spotlighted the art form, introduced it to a broad audience, and brought new understanding of tapestry as art. A sequel, the Met’s 2007 exhibition and catalogue, Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor, followed. Other major museums presented ambitious exhibitions, accompanied by catalogues with substantial new research. In addition, from the late 20th century, institutions have produced complete catalogues of their extraordinary European tapestry holdings, among them: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Patrimonio Nacional in Spain; the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. At the same time, articles and books exploring specific designs, designers, producers, and patrons appeared, with some monographs published in the dedicated series, Studies in Western Tapestry, edited by leading scholars Guy Delmarcel and Koenraad Brosens, and produced by Brepols. Tapestry research has often focused on the works of well-known designers and their exceptionally innovative work, such as the artists Raphael (b. 1483–d. 1520) or Peter Paul Rubens (b. 1577–d. 1640). High-quality production at major centers, including Brussels or at the Gobelins Manufactory in France, has also captured scholars’ attention, as have important patrons, among them Henry VIII of England (b. 1491–d. 1547) or Louis XIV of France (b. 1638–d. 1715). Newer directions for research include the contributions of women as weavers and entrepreneurs, the practice of reweaving designs, and the international reach and appeal of Renaissance and Baroque tapestry beyond Europe.

General Studies

Overviews of European tapestry, based on archival sources and analyses of surviving weavings, have appeared since the late 19th century (Guiffrey, et al. 1878–1885; Göbel 1923–1934; Joubert, et al. 1995). Some studies have focused on specific weaving centers and regions, such as Flanders, the center of European tapestry weaving (Wauters 1878, Delmarcel 1999). Campbell’s groundbreaking catalogues for two exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offer a comprehensive and original look at European Renaissance and Baroque tapestry, synthesizing important research and offering cogent analyses of some of the most innovative designs and spectacular weavings produced in the period (Campbell 2002, Campbell 2007). Essays by Campbell (Campbell 1993), Cleland (Cleland 2007) and Brosens (Brosens 2013) present concise, informative introductions to European tapestry in the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

  • Bertrand, Pascal-François, ed. Arachné: Histoire de l’histoire de la tapisserie et des arts décoratifs. Le Kremlin-Bicêtre, France: Éditions Esthétiques du Divers, 2016.

    This collection of papers by tapestry historians explores the history of the study of tapestry, from the 19th century—when tapestry became perceived as a less important “decorative art” versus the more important “fine arts” of painting and sculpture—to the early 21st century, as scholars now aim to place tapestry in the larger context of art history.

  • Brosens, Koenraad. “Tapestry: Luxurious Art, Collaborative Industry.” In A Companion to Renaissance and Baroque Art. Edited by Babette Bohn and James M. Saslow, 295–315. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781118391488.ch14

    This essay offers a thoughtful overview of European tapestry design and production from 1380 to 1750, particularly in France and the Low Countries. The author presents tapestry as a costly pictorial art form, parallel to but very different from painting. Through specific projects, the discussion traces two main themes: how tapestry design responded to stylistic changes in contemporary painting and shifting methods of tapestry distribution—from smaller scale merchant capitalism to the more ambitious industrial capitalism.

  • Campbell, Thomas P. “Tapestry.” In 5000 Years of Textiles. Edited by Jennifer Harris, 188–198. London: British Museum, 1993.

    This short, very informative essay introduces European tapestry design, production, and collecting in the 14th to 19th centuries with special attention to weavings made in France, Flanders, and England.

  • Campbell, Thomas P., ed. Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007.

    The scholarly catalogue of the 2007 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that explores European tapestry from the late 16th to the early 18th centuries. Essays by leading specialists discuss design, production, patronage, and collecting; catalogue entries offer in-depth discussions of specific works from the period.

  • Campbell, Thomas P., Maryan W. Ainsworth, Rotroaud Bauer, et al. Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

    The scholarly catalogue of the ground-breaking 2002 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that brought new attention to tapestry as integral to the narrative of art history surveys of European tapestry from the late 15th to the late 16th centuries. Essays by Campbell present aspects of design, production, and patronage, and catalogue entries, with contributions by international scholars, detail outstanding examples of the art.

  • Cleland, Elizabeth. “Tapestries as a Transnational Artistic Commodity.” In Locating Renaissance Art. Vol. 2. Edited by Carol M. Richardson, 103–132. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

    A concise introduction to European tapestries in the 15th and 16th centuries that highlights Brussels as a major center of production and discusses the supply, marketing, and appeal of these luxury textiles.

  • Delmarcel, Guy. Flemish Tapestry. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999.

    This survey by an eminent tapestry historian presents tapestry design and production in Flanders, the center of the most highly skilled and innovative weaving throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The author discusses the importance of Brussels, but also considers tapestry making in Tournai, Antwerp, Bruges, Enghien, and Oudenaarde.

  • Göbel, Heinrich. Die Wandteppiche. 3 vols. Leipzig: Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1923–1934.

    An early-20th-century introduction to European large-scale wall tapestries that is particularly useful for discussions and images of tapestry in Germanic and Scandinavian regions that remain understudied.

  • Guiffrey, Jules, Eugène Müntz, and Alexandre Pinchart. Histoire générale de la tapisserie. 3 vols. Paris: Société Anonyme de Publications Périodiques, 1878–1885.

    This important, early survey of the history of European tapestry draws on archival sources and extant examples and continues to offer valuable information.

  • Joubert, Fabienne, Amaury Lefébure, and Pascal-François Bertrand. Histoire de la Tapisserie en Europe, du Moyen Âge à nos jours. Paris: Flammarion, 1995.

    This volume presents a broad history of tapestry in Europe, especially France, and offers a thoughtful introduction to the art through the 20th century.

  • Wauters, Alphonse. Les tapisseries bruxelloises: Essai historique sur les tapisseries et les tapisseries de haute et de basse-lice de Bruxelles. Brussels: Baertsoen, 1878.

    An early study of tapestry in Brussels, the leading center of tapestry production from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and its relation to tapestry production in other centers, written by the archivist of the city of Brussels.

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