by Isabella Woldt
My research project in the Bilderfahrzeuge group focuses on tapestries as mobile vehicles. The main investigation concerns the reflecting of Petrarch’s “Trionfi” in tapestries and discusses the textile as an instrument of the transfer of ideas and cultural contexts by the manufacture of elaborate materials like gold thread into the tapestry, for instance. The project arises from many years of study on the works of the Hamburg art and cultural historian Aby Warburg. Moreover, the term “Bilderfahrzeuge” has its roots in Aby Warburg’s research on tapestries. The essay below should encompass Warburg’s main discourse on that topic.
The term “Bilderfahrzeuge”, meaning ‘image vehicle’, refers to Aby Warburg’s research on the “afterlife of antiquity”. Warburg investigated the process of the migration of cultural elements as a material embodiment of the function of human memory. He observed how these cultural objects implement expressions that are the result of the human process of memorising, and how through perception these objects evoke a creative process in the human brain, which produces new thoughts. Warburg asked and investigated how that process was organised and which elements were the most influential in that practice of creation, and he called those elements the “pathos formula”.
However, structures need a vehicle to transport them historically and geographically over time and space and make them mobile. Tapestries represent the origin of that idea in Warburg’s research. They are one of the earliest examples of visual elements that Aby Warburg investigated in a broader background of his research on the afterlife of antiquity, especially in the context of the artistic and cultural exchange between northern and southern Europe in the early Renaissance. Tapestries are also fundamental to his discussion about clothing and body manifestation in his study of the theory of expression (Ausdruckskunde).
In 1907, on his return from Italy to Hamburg, Warburg wrote a short essay entitled “Peasants at Work in Burgundian Tapestries” (Arbeitende Bauern auf burgundischen Teppichen). It was a study of a series of tapestries from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Warburg starts his essay with an explanation of the special characteristics of tapestries. In a rejection of their current status as “aristocratic fossil[s] in a show collection” (aristokratisches Fossil in Schausammlungen), the art historian describes tapestries as “democratic features”, since the weaver could repeat the work, using the design for the tapestry made on cartoons, as often as the client demanded.i In fact, the well-known, ten-piece tapestry set by Raphael, which presented the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 for the Sistine Chapel and produced in the workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst in Brussels, one of must important centres of tapestry weaving during the Renaissance, exists in multiple versions. (Fig. 1)
Apparently, in this study, Warburg uses the term “mobile image vehicle” (bewegliches Bildvehikel) for the first time to represent special characteristic of tapestries, which, unlike frescos (another form of large wall decoration) were not permanently attached to the wall: “Nor was the tapestry, like the fresco, permanently attached to the wall: it was a mobile support for the image”.ii Tapestries were hung up and taken down for such special occasions like coronations, weddings or other events, and presented often in different places, in palaces, churches or chapels. They could also be easy transported as rolled-up packages, and taken on journeys, or were also used as a popular official gift. This provided a suitable opportunity not only to disseminate stylistic and structural frameworks, but also to include propagandistic content, as is explained further in that essay.
In his study on “Peasants at Work”, Warburg investigated the provenance of three tapestries exploring a profane genre: namely, woodcutters at work. Based on a stylistic analysis of the clothing and character movements of the presented figures, as well as a study of the provenance, which was examined through the signatures woven into the textiles, Warburg was able to determine that two of the works were produced in the 15th century, while the third was a work from the 16th century. However, the profane theme of wood-working peasants was not an unusual theme for the aristocratic society, and Warburg recognized that fact as the interest of aristocratic patrons (in this case, the French) in such motifs, since those commissioners wanted to adopt the strength and power that emanated from such magnificent works, which were produced in expensive materials, for example fine wool, silver and gold thread. The northern European commissioners delighted in this theme of rural representations in the same way that southern European aristocratic commissioners delighted in the images of satyrs, said Warburg. Artists, however, used such figural representation without the heavy, rich decorated and narrow patterned costumes found in northern European styles, which limited the expressiveness of characters’ movements and hid a much more dynamic expression of the body to realize the modern body expressions.
In 1913 Warburg produced another study, entitled “Airship and Submarine in the Medieval Imagination” (Luftschiff und Tauchboot in der mittelalterlichen Vorstellungswelt), where he again dealt with tapestries.iii Two tapestries, which Warburg saw during the X International Congress of the History of Art in Palazzo Doria, Italy, attracted his attention. Produced between 1450 and 1460 probably in Tournai, another centre of tapestry weaving, the tapestries depicted the life of Alexander the Great. One of that works showed the heroic deeds of the young Alexander, while the second presented the strange, “most fabulous actions” of the world conqueror. (Fig. 2)
According to Warburg, the fact that these two Arazzi, as they were called in the Italian language, were now in Italy could be attributed to the preference of the Italian aristocratic court to the magnificent Burgundian tapestries suggesting great wealth through their precious materials and often complex, multifigural compositions manufactured usually in series and great dimensions. These two tapestries reflect in their content the well-known novel Alexander (Alexander-Roman) that told the life story of Alexander the Great. In the fantastic events of the second tapestry in particular Warburg recognized a direct reminiscence of the ancient source of the novel, since the medieval tradition cleaned up the Alexander romance of its fabulous content. On these tapestries Nordic French-Burgundian art is presented in its medieval costume style, but the content is however evidence of significant modernity in Warburg’s eyes, because the composition goes back directly to very early ancient sources, as already mentioned above. Around the middle of the 15th century, in both Italy and the North of Europe, a distinct interest in the Renaissance can be observed with regard to the reception of ancient sources covered by the so-called “Nordic” style:
“The tapestry in the Palazzo Doria, not previously noticed in the literature, can thus be seen as a revealing document of the evolution of historical consciousness in the age of the revival of classical antiquity in Western Europe. The exaggerated costume detail, and the fantastic air of romance, in the Alexander tapestry – its superficially anticlassical style – should not close our eyes to the fact that here in the North the desire to recall the grandeur of antiquity was as vigorously felt and expressed as in Italy; and that this ‘Burgundian Antique’, like its Italian counterpart, had a role of its own to play in the creation of modern man, with his determination to conquer and rule the world”.iv (Fig. 3)
Tapestries remained a field of research and interest even after Warburg’s return in 1924 from the Kreuzlingen-Hospital, where he recovered from his mental illness. A few years later, in 1927 Warburg held a lecture entitled “Medicean Festivals on the Valois Court on Flemish Tapestries in the Gallery of Uffizi” (Mediceische Feste am Hofe der Valois auf Flandrischen Teppichen in der Galleria der Uffizi). He presented that lecture in October 1927 to open the series of “Winter Lectures” at the Institute for the History of Art in Florence (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz). Warburg spoke about a series of eight Renaissance tapestries from the Collection of the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence. This works show the festivities at the French court of Valois between 1560 and 1570, but they were produced in Brussels ca. 1580-1585. (Fig. 4)
The art historian focused in his talk especially on the political background of those presented events and the epoch of its manufacture. Three pieces called Bayonne-Tapestries from the same series were mainly discussed. They depict the festivals in celebration of the high political gathering between the Queen of France, Catharina de’Medici with her daughter Elisabeth, Queen of Spain in Bayonne 1565. Warburg recognized here the context of the French Wars of Religion in that epoch. Catharina de’Medici hopped to meet Philip II, King of Spain at Bayonne in order to form an alliance. Instead Philip sent his wife Elisabeth and delegated the Duke of Alba. As a return for the alliance, the Catholic King of Spain demanded the eviction of the Huguenots and the application of the enforcement of the decisions of the Council of Trent. That was in Warburg’s opinion an announcement of the St. Bartholomew Day massacre in August 1572 and the fall of Catharina’s conciliatory politics. Warburg notes in his talk:
“Von den pompösen übersinnreichen Monstren altüberlieferter italienischer und neugeformter französischer moralisierender Gelehrsamkeit verdeckt, bahnte sich unter Führung des unerbittlichen Fanatikers Alba die spanische Inquisition ihren Weg zur Bartolomäusnacht. Allerdings war in den Zeiten, die die Teppiche im Bilde widerspiegeln, auf Seiten der gewandten Florentinerin die Hoffnung noch nicht geschwunden, ihrem Lande eine Wiederholung der blutigen Religionskriege zu ersparen. Zu den wirksamen Kleinkünsten ihrer Politik gehörte eben nicht zum wenigsten der rauschende festlich gestaltete Tag mit Tänzen, Musik, galanten Ritterspielen und weittragenden kühlberechnenden Heiratsprojekten im Hintergrund.”v
Warburg conceived the propagandist statement mainly in those well-proportioned portraits of the Valois family arranged in the front scenes, which had not been part of the design by Antoine Caron for the series, but added later. (Fig. 5-6)
But beyond that political content Warburg also discovered the process of incorporation of ancient elements of style into the Renaissance culture in Valois-Series, visualized and expressed in such figures like Neptune, the ruler of the world, whose presence can be observed in the tapestry showing “Water Festival”. Neptune was for Warburg one of the main examples for the study of the continuous “vigour” (Lebenskraft) of the “afterlife of pagan nature symbols” (des nachlebenden heidnischen Natursymbols). The appearance of the English king in Neptune’s costume on one of the Barbados stamps should be understood as an example of the continued existence of Neptune’s divine forces in a royal shape since the ancient time and the mobility in time and space of such pictorial elements. Warburg discussed that content in the context of Valois-Tapestries. (Fig. 7)
One year later on the 14th of April 1928, Warburg presented a lecture for the members of the Association of the Hamburg Chamber of Commerce in his Cultural Library in Hamburg, entitled “Images of Italian Renaissance Festivals”, where he continued his research on tapestries. The topic was once again the Valois-Series, but Warburg emphasized the political background rather less than the aesthetic values of such art works, namely tapestries in festivals as image vehicles, which due to their special mobile characteristics obviously supported and influenced the afterlife of ancient elements of expression. (Fig. 8)
Individual reproductions of tapestries can also be found in other picture series for talks or exhibitions. But finally Warburg concentrated the idea of tapestry as mobile vehicles in one of his panels for the Mnemosyne Picture Atlas, on which he worked in the last period of his life after returning from Kreuzlingen Hospital, and that should have been the methodological summit of his cultural art history. Panel No. 34 of the Mnemosyne Atlas collects some tapestry images and others related to that topic and is entitled “Tapestry as Vehicle”. What we find on that panel are reproductions of meaningful subjects: the already mentioned “Peasants at work”, hunting motifs, also the already discussed “Alexander Story”. But Warburg displayed photographs of the cartoons for the “Story of the Trojan War” after designs by Pasquier Grenier (ca. 1475-1490) as well. Accordingly there are also three examples of topics which were probably commissioned for tapestries, namely the “Narcissus” and “The Entombment of Christ”. (Fig. 9)
And as we already know such cartoons could have been used for more than one set of tapestries, but obviously with distinguishing features. In the former Cardinal Wolsey’s Collection (Hampton Court Palace) for instance, one can find examples from a series presented Petrarch’s “Trionfi”. The “Triumph of Fame over Death”, part of the set commissioned by Wolsey, includs Portraits of King Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey himself.vi The commissioners used the artwork as an apotheosis of themselves. Such political instrumentalisation of art works could have been observed already in the Bayonne-Tapestries. (Fig. 10)
[i] GS I.1, pp. 221-230, p. 223 (Engl.: The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance, Getty Publications, Getty Research Institute, Texts & Documents, 1999, pp. 315-323, 315).
[ii] GS I.1, p. 223 (Engl.: p. 315).
[iii] GS I.1, p. 241-249 (Engl.: pp. 333-337).
[iv] GS I.1, pp. 248-249 (Engl.: p. 337).
[v] GS II.2, pp. 235-273, p. 237.
[vi] See Thomas P. Campbell: Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty. Tapestry at the Tudor Court, New Haven, London 2007, pp. 152-155.