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Arras Town Hall.
Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.
John II of Castile.
Isabella I of Castile.
Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad.
Royal Palace of Madrid.


The technique is, in theory, a simple one. Firstly the warp thread is set up using strong yarns, usually wool, arranged close together in parallel. The weft, which creates the visible part of the tapestry, is then threaded into this structure. Other finer threads of silk, or sometimes gold or silver, are interlaced with the warp thread by passing them over and under the warp at right angles. However, despite its apparent simplicity, tapestry making is extraordinarily hard work done in highly specialized workshops.

<To produce a tapestry panel a pattern is needed. A painter would usually create a sketch on a reduced scale and other painters would then enlarge this into what was called a tapestry cartoon, the same size as the tapestry. The weavers would then work directly on this cartoon.


Tapestries were made throughout the Middle Ages, but it was from the 14th century that the popularity of tapestry making reached its peak. The first modern tapestries appeared in France, in the Court of the sons of King John II: Charles V, Luis I, Duke of Anjou, John, Duke of Berry and Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy and Count of Flanders. Tapestries had previously typically portrayed plants and flowers and were smaller in size, but now new themes started to be introduced, such as religious and mythological scenes, and the size of the tapestries increased considerably, with some measuring up to 6 x 25 metres, for instance, the Apocalypse series, currently kept in Angers castle (France).

In order to create such large tapestries, workshops had to become specialized and these were soon concentrated in Arras, a city which then belonged to Flanders. The great quality of the panels produced in this city led to references in Spain to ‘Ras’ panels (from Arras) to describe the very best tapestries. For this same reason, in Italy high quality tapestry panels are referred to as ‘arazzi’.

In time other Flemish towns, such as Tournai and Oudenaarde, set up their own workshops. In the 16th century the principal manufacturing centres were in Brussels and Antwerp, in Brabant. However, tapestry making continued to be important for many years and in Spain, for example, the Santa Barbara Royal Tapestry Factory was opened in 1720, for which Goya made cartoons in 1790 at the behest of King Charles IV.


In the 15th century, two Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, accumulated an impressive collection of tapestries of the highest quality. The interest in tapestries spread to Spain and to other European courts. In Aragon, for example, John II and his wife Joanna Enríquez built a collection of several pieces. However, most tapestries were to be found in Castile: John II of Castile and Henry IV, his son and heir, collected a large number of panels, although this was nothing compared to the more than 300 tapestries owned by Isabella I of Castile in 1500, not including those acquired by her husband Ferdinand.

In imitation of their kings, the nobility and leading clergy also took an interest in collecting tapestries, particularly after 1496, when relations between Spain and the Duchy of Burgundy were strengthened thanks to the double wedding between the children of Maximilian I the Holy Roman Emperor – Margaret of Austria and Philip the Handsome – and of the Catholic Monarchs – Prince John and Princess Joanna (who later became Queen Joanna I). Commercial relations intensified and travellers to the Netherlands commissioned tapestries, although these could also be bought from merchants in markets, such as the one in the town of Medina del Campo.

By the end of the 15th century there was an enormous number of tapestries in Castile. In fact, when Princess Joanna went to the Netherlands to meet with her husband Philip the Handsome, she brought with her a number of panels of such high quality that the locals were amazed, incapable of recognizing that they had been made in their own country. Isabella I of Castile had also gifted her other daughters with magnificent tapestries and even gave 22 panels to her daughter-in-law, Margaret of Austria. In 1502, when Philip and Joanna returned to Spain to be recognized as heirs to the throne, there were so many tapestry panels in Castile that chronicler Antoine de Lalaing described the places the cortege passed through on the way to Toledo as being lavishly decorated with tapestries hung in the streets and squares.

Although the Catholic Monarchs had a large collection, their daughter Joanna I had more than 70 tapestries of her own when she was confined in Tordesillas in 1509. Charles V commissioned several series and enlarged his collection with pieces received from his family. Philip II continued with his predecessors’ interest in tapestries and not only commissioned new pieces but also ensured that the tapestries would remain the property of the crown. The outcome was that the Spanish royal collection became the most important collection of tapestries in the world.


In the 19th century painting took over as the leading art form and tapestry making came to be viewed as a lesser art – a mere handicraft. Despite the fact that tapestries accentuated the wealth and luxury of their owners, the new aesthetic ideas of the time meant that these panels were often put away and many were lost forever. Fortunately, the bulk of the royal collection was preserved and today, thanks to its status as National Heritage, we can still view magnificent series made in the 15th to 18th centuries. Thus, the collections open to viewing in the Royal Palace in Madrid, the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso are unparalleled in the world.

The tapestries owned by the nobility and clergy suffered a worse fate. Many were destroyed with the passing of time and, until well into the 20th century, others were put up for sale; some are currently on display in museums in the United States of America. Nevertheless, some magnificent examples have been preserved in cathedrals, for example, four panels depicting the Trojan War formerly belonging to the Counts of Tendilla are now kept in the Cathedral of Zamora. There are also some spectacular tapestries in the Cathedrals of Burgos and Palencia, bequeathed by Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca. The collection in the Cathedral of Toledo is extraordinary, although some tapestries are only displayed on feast days such as Corpus Christi. Other tapestries are safeguarded in the Museum of Santa Cruz in Toledo, although only the Astrolabe Tapestry is on display. Special mention should also be made of four panels depicting the conquest of Asilah and Tangiers by Alfonso V of Portugal, owned by the Collegiate of Pastrana (Guadalajara) and recently restored thanks to the intervention of the Carlos de Amberes Foundation. It is even possible, in a place as remote from the larger cities as Oncala (Soria), to find a splendid series such as the Apotheosis of the Eucharist, the cartoons for which are a replica of those made by Rubens for a series of the same name kept in the Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid.

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