by Valerie Justin 22 November 2005
A group of Verdure tapestries called Giant Leaf Tapestries is being shown in New York City. The tapestries are possibly the earliest renderings of the newly discovered great forested landscapes of the New World.
To see these exuberant tapestries hanging in a Manhattan brownstone is to enter into the fantastic once-upon-a-time landscape that was the Americas circa 1500.The great curling blue green/light green leaves massed against mysterious dark backgrounds dominate the space – looking carefully one sees exotic birds; parrots, wild turkeys and herons, vines are entangled in the dentated or serrated leaves, wild roses are central in several of the pieces. In “Giant Leaf tapestry with serrated leaves and hounds” two elegant hounds are Old World dogs and might have actually accompanied the original explorers. The explorers, (could the artist have been among them?), also noted leaves torn and damaged by the feeding insects and snails shown in natural detail in several of the tapestries.
Giant Leaf Tapestries were acquired by the rulers of England and Europe. Inventories of Henry VIII show he owned sets in every palace, as did the Roman Emperor Charles V. Being in a grand hall in candlelight. its walls completely covered with these powerful natural images, would have been dramatic – creating the experience of being enclosed in a primeval forest. They were first woven in the early 1500s after Vasco de Gama and Christofo Colombo had brought fauna and flora from the Americas to Europe causing an explosion of interest in botany and spawning the study and understanding of the medicinal properties of plants, and wide interest in their cultivation.
The absence of historic and religious subjects, the naturalism of these scenes, and the accuracy of their observation changed the treatment of subject matter in tapestry design. Replacing the more formal “mille fleur” depictions of frame-filling flowers, proto Giant Leaf Tapestries appeared; a charming one in the exhibit shows a confrontational lion and griffin of medieval appearance.
These tapestries are not marked with makers’ names and there are no extant drawings (the cartoons) – specific knowledge of their birth seems still elusive. They are woven with wool and silk. The warp count is given as between 11 and 16 threads to the inch.
The exhibition includes complete examples (the longest shown is 13’1” but is only 4’5” wide because it was woven as a wainscot tapestry to cover a wall above the paneling). Also included are fragments from large tapestries that had been altered for furnishing bed canopies. The fragments are beautiful and somehow touching , as I often find fragmented art to be. According to the catalogue “frequently the cartoons were over 150 square feet and cumulatively a set could be over a thousand square feet”.
Some of the tapestries (there are fourteen) are bordered with simple narrow bands (red is an effective border color in the first one on view; reds not being prevalent in most of the tapestries – possibly due to the higher costs of red-dyed wool and silk.) On the other hand, the border of Giant Leaf Tapestry with Dentated Leaves is very wide and elaborate, extending into the field on all sides. It is a stunning frame filled with luscious garlands of fruits and flowers.
As the vogue for Giant Leaf tapestries grew, their production spread – they were woven in small and large tapestry centers in Flanders and France for most of the 16th century; many of their weavers migrated to Paris as well as to Germany and Denmark.
In Kronberg Castle in Denmark, a surviving Giant Leaf tapestry shows a rhinoceros along with exotic birds and other creatures, a mix possibly created by an artist without a clear mastery of the new geographical information. (A live rhinoceros being transported from Goa by a Portuguese ship had caused a sensation in 1515.)
Other Giant Leafs can be seen at the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert, many museums in Europe. In the United States they are represented at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Rhode Island School of Design, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum of Fine Arts Boston included two of them in its 1967 Catalogue of TAPESTRIES. The author states that “literally hundreds of similar tapestries survive in public and private collections.” However, this exhibit is, according to the catalogue, “the first ever devoted to the subject of Giant Leaf tapestries”
The exhibit is the inaugural show at the New York City gallery of S. Franses, the London historic tapestry and carpet specialist. The excellent catalogue, ‘Giant Leaf Tapestries of the Renaissance 1500-1600’, includes essays on their development, their revival in the late 19th century (William Morris was the leading exponent), complete plates with descriptions and technical information. Available from FRANSES . 132 Eat 61 St. NY NY 10021.
Photo Caption: Detail of Giant Leaf Tapestry with Serrated Leaves and Hounds Catalogue #2
22 November 2005 Valerie Justin
Web site: Vanishing Textiles