I just got back the day before last, from the last leg of my travels as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellow studying the techniques of medieval tapestries in France, Belgium, New York, Germany and Switzerland. Most Fellowships are conducted in a block, but for practical reasons I had to break mine up, but I feel it has served me well, for in the intervening time much development has taken place both academically and artistically, and I found myself undertaking this last trip with new eyes, vigor and questions. My days were very long as so keeping up to date with this blog and social media proved rather difficult so I hope you forgive me that these next few posts will be done retrospectively.
I feel it is not too much of an injustice to say that a visit to the German town of Halberstadt (above) would not feature on the bucket list of many tourists. It suffered hugely during the war and today it consists of a very nice and clean modern shopping precinct, a smattering of timber-framed buildings in the old town, plenty of renovated housing blocks and, alas, a fair few structures slowly rotting, a legacy from the town’s previous inclusion in the East German state, owner-less since unification. But what it also has, is a Cathedral, and what that has – bizarrely, amazingly, astoundingly – is its treasury, the paintings, the silverwork, the sculpture, the carpentry, the glass, textiles, more textiles and some more textiles that were collected and used by the cathedral over the centuries. And in that treasury are two twelfth century tapestries and one from the early thirteenth.
They are often mentioned, albeit in passing, as the oldest complete tapestries in the world, this fact alone, and their aesthetic appeal from the little I could find of them online meant that from the outset I wanted to include them on my travels, but it seemed hard to justify the detour for only one site and I dropped it off the plans before I applied.
But when in France the importance of the Nuremberg collection became apparent, and as I was somewhat perplexed how tapestries such as the Apocalypse of Angers and the Nine Heroes at the Cloisters, could seemingly come out of nowhere in the fourteenth century. The inclusion of Germany now seemed justified and I am grateful to the WCMT for their incessant patience and flexibility regarding my plans.
The new itinerary quickly formed, flying into Berlin, then trains to Halberstadt and nearby Quedlinberg, then down to Nuremburg, also as a base for Munich and Bamburg, and then more trains down to Basel and Bern in Switzerland and flying back home from there. I am a rather anxious user of public transport at the best of times, and just as I set off I discovered that as I was to fly into Berlin, a world war bomb was to be detonated near the train station, shutting down the rail network.
In the run up to these trips an astounding amount of practical and mental preparation takes place and as I was in fact ready for the plane going down, ending up on the wrong train, having to sleep in the open somewhere in the black forest for a few years and changes to the space time continuum, actually I was rather unphased by World War II in the end. And perhaps only in Germany can they shut down the most important train station and evacuate half a city and then have the trains running again flawlessly within half an hour. I arrived at Halberstadt in the evening, my hotel in the old town a bit of a trek from the station but a relay of locals walking me along the way whenever I looked lost. (Word to the wise, Germany, if you put street signs on the street, it means folk can find out where they are and where they are heading, other countries do it, it isn’t difficult, sweetie).
Anyway, tapestries. There were a pair of two early sixteenth tapestries in an anti-chamber depicting the life of Mary which no doubt I would have swooned over had I not already caught a glimpse in the room beyond of the tapestries I had come to see. It is difficult to get across the feeling on walking into these silent, dark galleries and, as your eyes adjust, the faces emerge from the wall, woven centuries ago. The largest two, the one depicting scenes from the life of Abraham, and the other depicting the Apostles, are long strips set at right angles. They and a third tapestry depicting Jacob since lost but with tantalising images of it extant, hung in the cathedral choir, where their hooks were still visible. They had in fact hung in the same place for centuries.
I was immediately struck by the harmony and balance created by a very limited palette in both tapestries, I counted less than ten colours (and I am sorry for the quality of images, it was all that could be done in the darkness without a flash for obvious reasons!). The figures of the Abraham tapestries had been woven with heavy eyes feeding into thin noses and bat like lips and doughnut shaped cheeks, I am no expert on medieval art of course, but I can’t remember ever seeing anything like this before. I hate to use the word as if it is a concept that gives them their value, but in their abstract way they were incredibly modern. The two tapestries are clearly related but I was told that the apostle tapestries where there is a more traditional sense of realisim are seen as some as better or more advanced, but there is nothing ‘backward’ about the Abraham tapestries, the unusual faces, the disproportional bodies, the elongated oversized hands were clearly a stylistic choice, the contemporaneity of this with other work clearly shows the tapestry could have been rendered more realistically had they chosen to do so.
There was a modesty of technique in these tapestries that I was to find across Germany. Solid blocks of weaving prevailed, blended bobbins only used as highlights. The use of slits and dovetails created a crispness to the tapestries that was striking. Alternate passes of colour created a quiet pattern to hair and other details in the Abraham tapestry abandoned in the Apostles in favour of solid colour. Despite the simplicity, something I had been foreshadowing in my own work of late, there was an abundance of interest. There was also the double telling of narrative in the Abraham tapestry, on the face of it the story of Abraham, Sarah’s unexpected pregnancy announced, a supper given to the angelic messengers, Isaac’s carrying of wood for the pyre of his intended sacrifice, his eventual saving, and yet also the story of the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the Passion. It’s intended audience was clearly an educated one.
The apostle’s tapestry features Jesus returned as the Judge of the World, flanked by angels and the apostles. In the second half the figures are crowded, architectural features representing the heavenly Jerusalem omitted. It seems during the production of this tapestry the Cathedral for which it was intended was razed to the ground. The dimensions of the new choir of the replacement church meant the size of the tapestries had to change, For the Apostles it was a change of design, for the Abraham one, the snip.
The third tapestry, also woven in the Harz region was a fragment of a portrait orientated piece, Charlemagne portrayed surrounded by four other figures, a traditional layout usually reserved for religious figures. It was interesting for having been woven on a vertical warp, and the ability this provided to use contoured wefts to render the faces and other features was used to the full. Only a few decades after the Abraham tapestries, it yet again reinforced to me the uniqueness of their weavers and cartoonists, if the two were indeed separate. Alas little is known about the workshops that produced these tapestries, but clearly they had been produced by highly skilled weavers in a long established medium. How the Apocalypse of Angers came about was immediately much more clearer to me, I am not drawing lines of course, what I mean is the skills that produced it were clearly in place centuries before. There was less of a gap in my mind between those pieces that might be considered archaeological and those that are at the pinnacle of the form.
The Halberstadt tapestries deserve to be celebrated as much as the Apocalypse of Angers, or the Unicorn tapestries of Paris or the Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries in New York, but I suspect their location off the tourist map means they have been denied that. A comprehensive forthcoming publication on the Halberstadt textiles will no doubt help spread the word regarding this amazing collection, and not just the tapestries. I’m saving up already.
Nearby is Quedlinburg, which fared much better in the face of allied bombing during the war than Halberstadt. The medieval town survived to such an extent it is now regarded as a World Heritage Site, but Pah! Who doesn’t live in one of those? In the treasury of the church that dominates from a rock outcrop is the earliest known European carpet, made in the 12th century, like the Halberstadt tapestries. The five fragments aren’t woven, but knotted on a warp, and so although not strictly within the remit of my project, it gave a chance to compare the tapestries with a contemporaneous and similar medium. It was also interesting to see in the crypt of the church the twelfth century wall paintings that covered the ceiling and how similar they were to the carpet. I am fascinated by the relationship, or the hints, that other mural mediums can give us regarding tapestries when they no longer survive, so I did a little dance. I also did a little dance when I found the most darling little enamel mug in one of the shops, but perhaps I ought not confess that being as I was there to work, I only nipped in for a second, honestly.
After Quedlinburg another day with the tapestries at Halberstadt followed and a highly informative meeting with their curator. It was very hard to leave the tapestries and their weavers. But Nuremberg and Munich were next, so in the early sunlight of the following morning I headed back the train station, my little wheeled suitcase bobbing off the cobbles. Halberstadt and Quedlinburg had been an excellent start to the trip and again I could hardly believe how lucky I was to get to see these things and the meet the people I did. So, as they say, the story is to be continued……But I will also just add, to all my friends who told me not to worry about my lack of German, that everyone would speak English, to go kick yourself in the chins, because that was a complete lie, and if it wasn’t for the Google Translate app I wouldn’t have eaten for five days.