They are so detailed and opulent.
Castles and grand estate homes are often pictured with tapestries lining the walls and if you visit some of these historic places today you will often see them decked out in the same manner. You might think of them as super old fashioned wall paper, but the truth is that tapestries served several much higher functions than mere decoration.
Tapestries were most commonly found in stone buildings and this was in part for warmth. At the time insulation was not standard to even the grandest of homes or public buildings. While the walls of a great castle or cathedral could be incredibly thick to withstand attacks from enemy armies, they were not warm.
Glass was a great luxury, as evidenced by the small panes joined together with lead as one big sheet of glass was too hard to produce during the middle ages and beyond. This meant that some of the smaller windows in these buildings were simply left open to the elements. Examples of un-glassed windows were defensive windows just big enough for shooting arrows down at attackers and the lower slit windows that allowed lepers to see into church services from outside without disrupting the rest of the congregation.
The main way of heating back then was with fires in the fireplaces, but even these could produce drafts from the chimney. No insulation, open air windows, and drafty fireplaces made for chilly environs. Even the wealthy would have lived in cold rooms and one way to abate this was by hanging thick tapestries of wool and silk around the room.
These rich pieces of artwork could take years to produce and were made by hand weaving. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum it could take a skilled weaver a month to complete 1 square meter of tapestry (or just over a yard). These large wall hangings could be 20 feet wide so you can imagine just how laborious some of these tapestries were!
While a simpler version of loom weaving using could be done for geometric designs with receptive shapes and colors, the elaborate scenes that depicted Greek gods or Arthurian legends sometimes had to be woven by hand to get the desired affects. Spools of thread carried the weft fibers through the vertical warp fibers, in dozens of colors per tapestry, sometimes with threads of gold or silver.
All this work resulted in a regal finished product, one that broadcast to all who entered a space that a lot of money had surely changed hands for these pieces. And, this was another important function of tapestries: to display one’s wealth.
Beyond the beautification, warmth, and status that tapestries provided, they also were used to signal the heraldry of a particular noble house as well. And, while we have to leave wallpaper behind when we move, for the upper classes of Europe at the time they could easily pack up their tapestries and take them to their next castle.
Since the tapestries were made to exact measurements this could be awkward in a new space. Many times these glorious tapestries were cut down to fit into new rooms. In the 18th century gilt paneling was all the rage and many priceless tapestries were cut to fit inside the panels.
It was also not uncommon to see tapestries in rooms they were not made for being wrapped around corners to avoid being cut, as in the photo above from Château de Chambord.
It wasn’t until insulation, plaster, and wallpaper became accessible that tapestries went from the must-have decor item to faded reminders of history. Still, many of these elegant tapestries today are carefully preserved in museums as they are simply too elaborate and costly to ever be reproduced today.