Tapestries enjoy a long and illustrious (pun intended) tradition. Basically, a tapestry is a hand-woven textile that is distinguished by pictorial representations. In other words, it is a large piece of cloth with pictures woven into it.
Anything from stories, to fanciful scenes, to historical representations can be woven into tapestries. The ancient Egyptians and the ancient Incas were cultures that wrapped their dead in clothing woven with tapestries. The representations could be reminders for the journey through the afterlife, or a telling of the great deeds performed by the deceased while still alive. The Greek Empire made use of tapestries in their civic buildings (including the Parthenon). However, we are most familiar with the brand of tapestry that began its hey day in the Middle Ages, and was brought to its peak by French craftspeople. Perhaps one of the most famous tapestries is the Bayeux Tapestry.
This tapestry was first recorded as existing in 1476, but it is credited with being commissioned sometime between 1070 and 1080 by the half-brother of William the Conqueror. The tapestry illustrates the battle between the Norman William and the Saxon Harold, Earl of Wessex in 1066. This is the history of the battle that made the Norman invasion of England successful, and William became king shortly thereafter. Even though it is called a tapestry, though, the Bayeux Tapestry is technically no such thing. The pictures are not woven into the textile, but rather embroidered on.
This is an important distinction for true tapestry connoisseurs. The Catholic Church was one of the biggest promoters of tapestry. Because most of the ordinary church members were peasants and illiterate, the church leaders recognized the importance of having tapestries that illustrated Bible stories. Consequently, church walls were hung with the representations, and the masses could see the depictions of important Biblical events.
Tapestries were often made in sets, and the oldest existing set is the Apocalypse of St. John, which was woven between 1375 and 1379. This tapestry set exists in six sections, each 18 feet high and totaling in length 471 feet.
Not only were tapestries used for religious purposes, but they were also status symbols. During the Middle Ages, the aristocracy counted it a privilege and honor to have a tapestry or three hanging about the estate. They were useful insulators against the cold by hanging on stone walls, and they provided privacy when hung over doorways and windows. They were also used to hang around beds, or even as an extra blanket.
Traveling nobility took their tapestries with them to increase their comfort and to show their prestige. A tapestry was considered part of the loot when a battle was won, and the victor often altered the tapestry, cutting it down or joining it to another, in order to make it fit with his own residence. The making of tapestries fell out of favor during the Renaissance, and were no longer original works of art. Many were relegated to the place of simply copying a famous painting.
However, the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late 1800s revived tapestry making quite a bit for a while. Today, however, most tapestries are made industrially, and are copies of famous tapestries and paintings. It is a rare thing to find a hand-woven tapestry.
Learn more about tapestry making, and even purchase a tapestry, at The Tapestry Cart