What Are Medieval Tapestries?

Tapestries are a centuries-old form of art in which images and scenes are woven into fabric form. Tapestries are primarily used as decorative items today, but they served a much larger purpose during the Middle Ages, roughly defined as the years between the fifth and the fifteenth centuries. Tapestries from the Middle Ages were not only beautiful works of art, but they also served to keep drafts out of buildings.

Medieval tapestries were woven hand with a loom and various fiber threads. Wool, flax, cotton, and silk were the most common fibers used in these medieval art pieces. The materials chosen were influenced availability and cost. Because tapestries were made hand and required a great deal of skill, they were relatively expensive, and individuals or institutions either had to be wealthy or have the skill to make them themselves.

Tapestry construction techniques from the Middle Ages are still in use today. The basic Middle Ages tapestry design was first sketched out, and the pattern for the piece was based on that design. The warp was a large loom threaded with threads running up and down. The artwork was created weaving the weft threads horizontally over the warp threads.

The number of colors used and the number of color changes found in each tapestry were known in advance of the actual weaving, adding to the complexity of medieval tapestries. From harvesting and spinning the warp threads to dying and finishing them, everything was done with the final tapestry in mind. The tapestry artists used shade manipulation with their fiber and color choices to achieve the desired effect.

The history of the time is reflected in the scenes depicted on tapestries. Religious strife and shifting societal demands and ideals characterize medieval history. There are tapestries depicting Christian imagery, mythological scenes, and historical events or figures from the Middle Ages. The artwork used to weave these woven works of art differs from one location to the next. The subject matter and style of Asian tapestries are vastly different from those of Western Europe.

During the medieval period, art, like society, underwent significant changes. At this time, artists were discovering and implementing depth and shading. These changes were reflected in the world of fiber art, as evidenced tapestries from the time period. Hachure and hatching were the two primary types of shading used in medieval tapestries to create the illusion and richness of depth. Hachure employs triangular shapes to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, whereas hatching employs various shades of the same color.

Medieval tapestries can be found in museums and private collections all over the world. Fiber art guilds, weavers’ guilds, and historical societies all have a stake in preserving these artistic treasures for future generations. Medieval tapestries can be learned a lot from a local medieval society or an art museum.