Priceless objects

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This tapestry was chosen to be sent to Spain in 1525 as a ‘taster’ of the series (The Honours), in order to persuade Emperor Charles V to buy the whole set.
Manufactured by Pieter van Aelst, Brussels, c. 1520, in gold, silver, silk and wool (500x1000 cm).
Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Segovia.

Priceless objects

Two factors were responsible for the high cost of tapestries: firstly, the time needed to manufacture them and, secondly, the quality of the materials. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the workforce of weavers was cheap. However, tapestries which reached ten metres wide and four metres high – which are not even unusual dimensions, given that there are far larger tapestries – took several days to manufacture (sometimes even years), and several people working at once. Each worker could cover a section up to a metre wide, which would mean four weavers working at the same time on such a four-by-ten metre tapestry. Bearing in mind that in one session only a few centimetres could be completed (the exact amount depended on the thickness of the weave), it is clear that the necessary workforce would come at great cost. But the factor which influenced the price even more was the use of precious fabrics: silk was expensive, and silver and gold threads even moreso. Thus, whatever the components used, the cost was always high.

We can get an idea of the prices of such tapestries if we compare them to paintings from the same period. When Queen Isabella I of Castile died in 1504, her possessions were put up for sale. In the initial valuation, it is notable that her panel paintings known as the Polyptych of Isabella the Catholic, attributed to the painters Michel Sittow and John of Flanders, were valued around 1,500 maravedís each – not a low price at all for a painting, considering that a panel painting by Bosch (the word “Jeronimus” is written on it) was valued at only 170 maravedís. One of the queen’s tapestries, the Resurrection of Lazarus, in contrast, was valued at 150,000 maravedís. And this is not an extreme case; half a century later Philip II paid almost three million maravedís for the eight tapestries which make up the Apocalypse series (National heritage, series 11).

Despite this, these figures leave no doubt that the tapestries were extremely highly-valued in comparison with paintings. The truth is that until the eighteenth century tapestry-making was the principal of the visual arts, something which can also be seen by the ceremonial and emblematic function which the tapestries had in the most significant celebrations.

Miguel Ángel Zalama

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