Guy Delmarcel, Flemish Tapestry. London: Thames & Hudson; New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999. 383 pp, generous colour and some b&w illus. ISBN 0-500-01972-X.
Guy Delmarcel, Los Honores. Flemish Tapestries for the Emperor Charles V. Antwerp: Pandora 2000. 176 pp, generous colour illus. ISBN 90-5325-217-7.
Guy Delmarcel’s Flemish Tapestry presents a lavish historical panorama of tapestry weaving in the Southern Netherlands between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. An update on previous surveys of this type, such as Gobel (1923) or d’Hulst (1960), it is enriched with findings of most recent scholarship and generous colour illustrations. The book opens with an overview of tapestry techniques. It is helpful for both the visualization and appreciation of this medium to be reminded that multiple weavers worked at the same loom at one time, for given an average tapestry’s height of 5 Flemish ells (3.45 meters), each weaver could produce only some 70 cm. per month. The body of the book treats
the stylistic evolution of tapestries over the course of four centuries. Several sets are highlighted in separate sections that address them as unified ensembles and situate them in their historical contexts. Delmarcel focuses chiefly on the tapestries’ formal aspects: their composition and style, the relationship between central design and borders, and the pictorial characteristics of individual weaving centres at a given period. By illustrating a very broad range of subjects, the volume demonstrates the importance and versatility of this art form. The book closes with a guide to some 55 woven marks of towns and individual manufacturers and an extensive bibliography.
The high quality colour photographs and close-up details convey the rich chromatic effects and textures of the textiles. Unfortunately, the images appear by and large on pages different from the text that describes them, and not all pictures are discussed. As no figure numbers are assigned to the photographs, nor are they correlated with the appropriate pages of the text, it is often difficult to know what tapestry is being addressed at any one time. In a book of such massive format such a layout is particularly unsatisfactory, as flipping though
the extremely heavy tome in search of images is not a physically easy task.
Delmarcel’s Los Honores volume constitutes a product of extensive research on one particular tapestry set woven on the occasion of the coronation of Charles V as the Holy Roman Emperor at Aachen in 1520. The author provides a wealth of information on the context of the commission and use of this 9-piece ensemble, its manufacturer, Pieter van Aelst, who also created the famous Sistine
Chapel tapestries designed by Raphael for Pope Leo X, and the tradition
of the ‘mirror of princes’ that informs the Los Honores iconography. Such was the splendour and political significance of this series that Charles travelled with it (as well as several other ensembles) as he traversed his far-flung domains. Delmarcel repeatedly calls tapestries “the mobile frescoes of the north”, but this catchy phrase is a profound misnomer. Frescoes were ‘poor’ substitutes for weavings, and often imitated pictorial textiles in appearance and subject. In fact, tapestries were hung over frescoes when the patron’s reputation was at stake. The richness of materials comprising tapestries – gold, silver, and silk – constituted a major factor in their visual and diplomatic impact.
Following an essay on the stylistic qualities of the Los Honores imagery and their artistic milieu, Delmarcel takes the reader on a detailed tour of their iconography and its intellectual underpinnings. His thorough and learned analysis does justice to the extraordinary richness of the depicted world. For the set is extremely erudite: full of classical mythology, history, and allegory intended to inspire the Emperor to virtue and honour, and to convey to his beholders his attainment of these high principles. Close-up views of individual weavings capture well their textures and colour effects and allow the reader to experience them mentally and visually. The volume closes with the discussion of the conservation of the ensemble at the De Wit Royal Tapestry Manufacturers, an awe-inspiring labour and a tour-de-force of skill. Documents pertaining to the series and an extensive bibliography conclude the book.
Delmarcel’s Los Honores monograph coincided with the exhibition of the tapestries held in Mechelen in the Summer of 2000. Their thorough cleaning and restoration returned them to the splendour of their original appearance. The exhibition, which opened with a selection of paintings, books, and other objects produced and used in the vicinity of the weavings, exhibited the tapestries to full
advantage. Hung three to a room in large, darkened halls, the hangings were illuminated by well-placed track lights that brought out their sumptuous colours and glimmering metal threads. Far more legible than the majority of deteriorated weavings we encounter in museums today, and more vibrant in their colours than their faded cousins, the renewed Los Honores pieces made it perfectly clear why tapestries were so admired and valued in their day. With their gold re-woven and revived, they actually glowed – the jewels, armour, and brocades worn by the depicted characters shimmered and rendered the figures three dimensional. The life-size scale of the illustrious and infamous heroes of history created a correspondence between their world and that of the beholder, inviting the onlooker to step into their reality. Measuring some 5 by 8-10 meters each and containing over 330 life-size figures altogether, most of them labeled by inscriptions, the tapestries were truly grand. Seeing them in their full splendour was a transcendent experience and gave the viewer a taste of the impact of freshly woven hangings on their contemporaries.
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study