Tapestry with St. John the Baptist

Late 15th century, Flanders or Ferrara
Wool and silk, 113 x 63 cm
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Ercole d´Este

Lucrezia Borgia

Ferrara

At the end of the 15th century Ercole I d’Este ruled over Ferrara, Modena and Reggio. Thanks to his judicious approach the dukedoms blossomed economically and culturally. The duke was married to Eleonora of Aragón with whom he had six children, including the later patron of the arts at the court of Mantua, Isabella d’Este. Alfonso, the eldest son, inherited the title of duke from his father in 1505. His wife Lucrezia came from the notorious Borgia family. However, in Ferrara, the family’s reputation did not stop her from being held in high esteem by members of the nobility, the common people, artists and especially by Duke Alfonso himelf who was deeply in love with her.

The art of weaving

Ornament

and comfort

The demand for woven wall hangings had increased greatly since the 11th century in Europe. This in turn had a positive effect on the production and quality of such tapestries and many exquisite works with pictorial motifs were created. As in the halls of the ruling families of old, the interiors of churches were also decorated with figurative pictorial wall hangings. Secular wall hangings, on the other hand, depicted courtly scenes or details from troubadour poetry and were an indispensable item for any princely ruler when travelling. Packed into chests they were loaded onto carts or beasts of burden and used to cover bare walls, add a little warmth and surround the owner with familiar images.

Sheep

Wool

Spindle

Woven tapestries were generally made of woollen yarn – a raw material gained from sheep that is washed, combed and spun into a thread. In the Early Middle Ages spinning was laboriously done by hand using a distaff and spindle. It was not until the end of the 13th century that the spinning wheel was used. The processing of wool was largely the task of women just as weaving has been a typically female occupation since Antiquity, as Homer tells us in his ‘Odyssey’ in which Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, weaves a shroud for her deceased father-in-law Laertes and Ariadne, the unfortunate weaver, is set a challenge by Athena. But that is another story.