Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Burgundian Booty - NOT

Before coming to Switerland I asked around, but nobody mentioned tapestries in Bern, the Swiss capital. At the British Tapestry Group conference, I first heard about the Burgundian Booty in a  lecture by Dina Ward. 

These tapestries were left behind by Charles the Bold (also known at Charles the Rash), last Duke of Burgundy, along with a heap of other valuables when he fled for his life, after his defeat by the Swiss in Grandson in 1476. Just before the battle, Charles had ordered the execution of 412 Swiss men, and when the victorious army came upon the scene, this atrocity united them as never before. They went on to annihilate his army, one of the most feared in Europe, 4 months later in the Battle of Murten. Bern Historical Museum

The Burgundian Booty is still displayed at various museums in Switzerland. 

The two places I had been advised to visit in Switzerland were the Basel Historical Museum, where the main tapestry gallery turned out to be closed due to renovations, and the Abegg Foundation, which is closed completely for renovation. Wouldn’t you know, when I arrived at the Bern Historical Museum, expecting to see the Burgundian Booty, I found out that this exhibit was also closed!  In this case, it’s not because of renovation, but because some of the tapestries are on loan, some at the Getty in LA, and the oldest known Mille Fleurs on loan in Bruges and Vienna for an exhibit on Charles the Bold, he who lost them in battle. (For the Mille Fleurs, click on the link then scroll down the page)Vinzenz sharp detail

With typical Swiss understatement the receptionist said, “there is one tapestry downstairs...."

Well, that one tapestry turned out to be a series of 4, each about 12 feet long, "Leben und Tod des heiligen Vinzenz." 1515.  (The Life and Death of Saint Vincent).

These are spectacular! They are hung so closely together, it could be one very long tapestry. IMG_4248So masterfully woven, colors still bright, some of the best faces I've seen in tapestry, and just loaded with hachures defining such lifelike folds in the robes.

They hang all in a row as one long narrative of the life of St. Vincent and his gory martyrdom. The topic is a bit disturbing, lots of stabbling and the like. Vinzenz Half

Each tapestry has a red border with beautiful gothic lettering, in Latin. In the catalog, the latin phrases are written, and translated into German.

Google translate was not helpful, neither was an online Latin to English translation tool. I believe the words tell the story, because in scene 9, where we see Saint Vincent being disemboweled, these words appear:  “burning, fiery , penetrate, wound, death.” OK, not the cheeriest story….reminds me of the book I used to check out of the library when I was about 9, called “Sixty Saints and How they Died.”

Vinzenz with Border

Here’s an example of Google’s translation of Scene 11: “sin as a rapper corpel preserves.”  Hmmmm……they really need to work on their German.

I bought the reasonably priced catalog, but since it's in German I've been sitting with my dictionary for hours, and never could find any information about where the tapestries were woven. Finally on a remote corner of the museum's website, after about 17 Google searches, I found a statement that mentioned they were woven in Brussels.  Vinzenz webIf this is what tapestries from Brussels look like, I can’t wait to see more!

I was also able to discern that the tapestries were woven specifically for the Bern Munster, which was dedicated to St. Vincent of Saragossa.

These tapestries were hung on panels just behind the choir seats.

I was allowed to take photos, but with flash not allowed, and the lights so low… I apologize for the lousy quality, and hope you can get an idea of what they are like.  Vinzenz Gory SceneDon’t forget you can click on them to see the full sized images.

And what about the infamous Burgundian Booty? At least I got some postcards!

Four of the tapestries picture scenes with captions in French from the Story of Caesar.

They were woven in Tournai, about 1470, and are said to have belonged to Louis of Luxembourg, Count of Saint Pol, who was put to death as a traitor in Paris in 1475.

I found this information in the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter, which is available in full text online.Caesar Tapestry



Catalog Information: 

Leben und Tod des heiligen Vinzenz: Vier Chorbehange von 1515 aus dem Berner Munster, authors Anna Rapp Buri and Monica Stucky-Schurer.

There are copies available through, from European booksellers; not sure if they would ship to USA.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Swiss Tapestries

Museum scene with tapestry web

Arriving at the Basel Historical Museum, I was disappointed to find that the entire downstairs, including most of the renowned tapestry collection, was in storage due to renovations.

There were a few tapestries in the gallery with all the gorgeous carved wood altars and religious figures. In this image you can see “The Effusion of the Holy Spirit” tapestry below the altarpiece.

I was impressed with how the tapestries were displayed: behind glass (but not far behind), so they could be down low, and people can get up very close to them. To preserve them from too much light, they have mechanical shades; you have to push a button to open the shade, which then closes again automatically in about 2 minutes. Of course that meant I had to keep opening them so I could examine the tapestries closely. The only problem is that you have no idea a tapestry is there, unless you happen to see someone opening the shade!Basel tapestry basket

These are Swiss tapestries, woven in Basel and Aargau from 1480-1490. The tapestry pictured above is described as a “Pentecostal Altar Tapestry,” and I’m thinking they are all altar tapestries. They all feature religious figures standing in a row facing forwards. As for weaving style, I did not see any demi-duite, and what little hatching there I saw was for pattern or representation, and not for shading.

Five Women Saints Detail

The backgrounds look like old silk velvet and brocade fabric patterns, and the catalog points out that it was common to have these types of fabrics hanging on walls, so they make an obvious background. The author says that the “representation of a textile within a textile was very popular with tapestry weavers…”

Along the bottom most of them have a few wildflowers, as if referring to the Mille Fleurs style, only instead of 1000 flowers, there are only 5, or 10 or at most 20.

Resurrection flowers

One of the tapestries has missing weft in exactly the shapes of the feet, then I noticed that the remaining foot is black. I remembered the tapestry conservator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston telling us that they often used iron mordant to make black dyes, and that the iron rotted the weft.

In general these tapestries are in good condition for their age, although like many old tapestries, the yellows have faded, leaving lots of blue areas that used to be green. They are fairly small, most about 5 ft wide by 3 feet tall, although one, Three Scenes from the Life of Christ is bigger, about 9 feet wide.

Effusion detail web

There are no borders. The sett seemed to be about 17 epi and the wefts are quite fine.

I love the way they wove hair. In the Pentecostal tapestry they all look like they have dreadlocks!

One guy has locks of about 3 different colors.

In the Resurrection tapestry, they did a lovely job on Jesus’ hair and beard, even on the towel being held by St Veronica, with the image of Jesus’ face imprinted.

Resurrection detail web

There is a lovely catalog of the permanent collections, with photos, (and including a few tapestries) and when I asked about buying it, I was told that if I filled out a survey I could have it for free! Then they had a small, inexpensive ($15) book of their tapestries, with photos, so of course I bought it. The title is “The Ancient Tapestries in the Basle Historical Museum,” text by Hans Lanz, Basel 1985. It’s more often cited by its German title “Die alten Bildteppiche im Historischen Museum Basel.” The book actually includes text in German, French and English in the same volume.

From the catalog, I can see that I’ll have to come back someday to see the rest of the collection. “Noblemen and Women Hawking,” “Depiction of the Power of Women,” and the charming “Wild Woman with Unicorn in a Forest Clearing,” which has the adorable brown unicorn, and the wild woman wearing a blue fur dress with holes in it for her bare breasts to stare out of.

Tapestries I saw, with apologies for the photos; the tapestries are behind glass, so there are reflections.Five Women Saints web I was pleasantly surprised to find out that photography is permitted, just not with a flash.

Five Women Saints:

St Barbara, St Agnes, St Dorothy, St Mary Magdalene and St Verena. (below left)

Resurrection of Christ. Resurrection web

Mary Magdalene and St Veronica (holding shroud with image of Christ’s face) and Two Angels. (below right)

Effusion of the Holy Spirit.

Mary and Holy Ghost (as dove) and 11 apostles. Pentecostal Altar Tapestry (below left)Effusion of the Holy Spirit web

Crucifixion, with Mary, John the Evangelist, St Francis of Assissi and St Clara. (Sorry, no photo of this one, click here instead)

Three Scenes from the Life of Christ (below)

3scenes from the life of christ web

REMEMBER! You can click on the images to see them larger!3scenes detail web