These entries in the Studies in Western Tapestry series testify to the variety of approaches to their subject. Iain Buchanan is an art historian with numerous tapestry publications, while Jacqueline Thibault Schaefer has published widely on the Tristan story and its visual images. She and Buchanan have produced two very different books, although the authors’ deep knowledge of and affection for their subject are manifest in each volume.
Buchanan is in an enviable position, of which he makes the most. The Habsburgs he discusses were successive, related collectors whose activities support his justification for greater inclusion of tapestry in arguing that rulers turned art to political ends. These particular rulers were outstanding patrons of art, who either lived in or had control over the Netherlandish heart of tapestry-making while that industry reached its height. Additionally, Buchanan’s emphasis on tapestries as physical objects receives a sharp focus when he directs attention to tapestries that still exist, are well documented, and have been much studied.
Buchanan divides his book into sections with a clear organization that unfolds according to a rigorous logic, best displayed in the first section. This part looks at tapestries as objects that were collected, made, marketed, and displayed, and each chapter packs information concisely and prepares the reader for its successor. First the reader finds a wealth of information: how the Habsburgs picked up earlier tapestry collecting; what cities were tapestry centers; what regulations affected tapestries; and how tapestries were marketed. Having constructed that basic frame, Buchanan continues on to tapestry design, giving examples of patrons’ close work with artists and providing extensive discussions of major figures, such as Bernaert van Orley. With the design complete, the tapestry was ready for weaving, and here, too, Buchanan outlines major figures and their documentation while returning to themes of trade and entrepreneurship. Since he focuses on tapestry at court, Buchanan ends with the court tapissier, arguing convincingly for this official’s critical role in display, not just for special occasions but also in everyday life.
Buchanan’s second section surveys the Habsburgs as tapestry collectors. His discussion includes figures whose holdings are not as well known or preserved, but his main focus is on Charles V, Mary of Hungary, and Philip II. Here, as in preceding chapters, Buchanan synthesizes, brings the reader up to date, and plants ideas for future research.
His third section, the longest in the book, catalogues Habsburg tapestries, many of them sets. Each richly illustrated entry again provides an overview of the tapestries’ history, not neglecting designers and weavers, iconographic concerns, and, where relevant, relations to other tapestries. Appendices transcribing documents, some directly concerned with the catalogue, are the final touch in turning the book into a convenient one-volume resource for anyone studying Habsburg tapestries – or, more generally, the role of tapestry along with painting and sculpture in Habsburg display.
Schaefer comes at her subject from another angle. Hers is the first study of what appears to be a complete set, seven tapestry panels depicting key episodes from the story of Tristan and Iseult. Schaefer opens by recounting their tragic tale of forbidden love, which enjoyed huge and enduring popularity and produced what once must have been vast numbers of illustrations in multiple media.
Schaefer dedicates her first section to an iconographic study of the panels, which with one exception are not held in a museum, but in the Belgian Foreign Ministry. Her discussion opens with their present locations and then moves to a careful formal analysis. Each episode in the story is set in a highly detailed landscape contained in a trompe-l’oeil frame. As Schaefer notes, the designer also arranged each composition as a simultaneous narrative. A reduced number of extremely large figures in the foreground of each tapestry perform activities that allow Schaefer to identify what part of the story is being told. However, she also delves into the other episodes told in smaller scale, and excellent detail photos allow the reader to follow her narrative. She provides detailed analysis and interpretation of each panel, and her familiarity with the story allows her to point out emphases and edits. This expertise is especially useful in identifying the subject matter of hitherto problematic panels (e.g., “Isalde’s Attempt on Brangain’s Life,” pp. 35-38).
Schaefer then proceeds to investigate the tapestries in various contexts: historical, literary, and iconographic, and each section leads the reader down another fascinating path. Schaefer also considers the tapestries’ function as wall decoration, pointing out that Tristan’s story appeared in documented, but lost, earlier tapestries that surely found parallels in the surviving embroidered hangings and frescoes that she illustrates.
A third section and her appendices examine the tapestries as artifacts. Here Schaefer is able convincingly to date the set to the early seventeenth century, and she returns to her theme of how these late entries relate to a long visual tradition. Her inclusion of photographs of weavers’ monograms and city marks are valuable, as is what appears to be a carbon copy of a 1948 letter about the set’s post-war history, written by Franz Kieslinger, art historian and Nazi plunderer.
Schaefer details that history in her second, contextual section. After belonging to the same noble family since at least 1649, the Tristan tapestries came into the hands of Jewish owners, one of whom wrote a will favoring Jewish heirs (see pp. 57-58; p. 107, app. II; p. 115, nn. 101-102). Their inheritance rights were ignored in post-Anschluss Vienna, and allegedly Hitler himself decided that the tapestries should hang in the Munich opera, where they were found after the war. The remaining heir, a Theresienstadt survivor, found herself subject to the Austrian chicanery best known from the case of Maria Altmann’s Klimts: officials demanded an exorbitant price for the restoration of her rightful property. Because the heir could not pay, the set was sold to the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That story illustrates tapestries’ place in the real world and their enduring use as desirable political tools.
Miriam H. Kirch
University of North Alabama