What were tapestries used for?

'The Triumph of Fortitude', c 1525, Flemish (Brussels)
[larger version]

Tapestries| were displayed in the palaces, cathedrals and grand residences of Medieval and Renaissance Europe. People had tapestries for many different reasons:

  • they were commissioned as grand wall hangings for the cathedrals, palaces and the houses of wealthy people.
  • they were regarded as works of art, providing inspiration and enjoyment for their owners.
  • their designs often told a story. Some were commissioned to show scenes of the owner's power, benevolence or courage in battle. Others, like Walker Art Gallery's 'Triumph of the Virtues', had a moral or religious message. Indeed, they were often the focus of discussions in high-society, providing hours of entertainment!
  • they could be extremely large and expensive to produce. In the 16th century, a set of seven tapestries could cost as much as an entire year's income for a wealthy duke. They were often commissioned and purchased to show the importance and wealth of the owner. Henry VIII, one of England's most famous monarchs, owned an extensive collection of rich continental tapestries, proving his high status. Tapestries often feature in the background of portraits of noblemen and women as a sign of their wealth.
  • when travelling between residences, visiting friends or meeting allies, wealthy people often carried tapestries with them to use as portable decorations. These allowed the owner to feel at home wherever he or she went.
  • for centuries, tapestries were only displayed on special occasions, but by the late 17th century they had become permanent decorative fixtures on the walls of grand buildings. Here they also fulfilled practical functions, such as making rooms warmer by absorbing damp and stopping drafts.