If you ever cruise around social media – especially Instagram and Pinterest – you’ll often come across embroidery or other needlework that’s based on or inspired by other works of art from the past.
Van Gogh’s Starry Night shows up in surface embroidery quite a bit! Or the girl with the pearl earring – did Vermeer know that his tronie would show up in cross stitch, in surface embroidery, even in goldwork 350 years later?
We would be a dried up and dead world, completely disconnected from our roots, if we did not draw inspirations from previous centuries for any of our artistic pursuits. Just as ideas build on previous ideas, just as inventions morph from previous inventions, art builds on art. That’s the nature of the development of human endeavor.
Today, by way of introduction, I’m going to babble a bit about some of my favorite pieces of art that have been on my mind and in my needlework plans for a long, long while. And, for all you art, history, and textile enthusiasts, you’ll find an interesting lecture about these works of art at the end of today’s article.
There are two eras of art that I turn to for inspiration frequently, with my favorite being the art of the late Middle Ages as it morphs into the early Renaissance.
Medieval art fascinates me. It’s art filled with layers and layers of meaning. And whether it’s the iconography of the Middle Ages, whether it’s textile art (embroidery, tapestry weaving), whether it’s illumination and calligraphy, sculpture – I find myself drawn to all of it.
Among the famous works of textile art of the late Middle Ages, I am most infatuated with the Lady & the Unicorn tapestries that are found in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
Lately, I’ve been working up, in needlework, my own little tribute to them and to other similar tapestries.
Ever since I first encountered the tapestries in a history of art class back in college, I wanted to make one.
No, no. Not really. Not a whole one!
I was enchanted by the background of the tapestries, more than anything else. I love the millefleur (thousand flower) backgrounds, bespeckled with almost caricatured animal life. From rabbits to dogs to cats to birds and monkeys – all the little animals in their floral surroundings impart a sense of life, vibrance, and a bit of forest-like magic that you find in the best fairy tales, folklore, and legends.
When I was in college, I had no idea how to go about designing anything, really. I just new I wanted to make that background in stitchery, somehow.
I tried dabbling with the flowers in surface embroidery, with DMC on red cotton. It didn’t make my heart sing. And I put the idea aside.
Over the years, though, I tried different renditions of the tapestries in other forms of needlework. I’ve tried regular needlepoint versions. I’ve tried crewel variations.
The closest I’ve come to really enjoying something Unicorn-Tapestry-Stitchable, though, was when I worked this miniature rendition of the Sense of Hearing tapestry.
I enjoyed stitching that piece. I used it as a “15 Minute Project” and I really liked watching it develop!
But I continued to treasure the idea of working up my own adaptation of just the background tapestry elements. And earlier this year, I designed one small piece to stitch.
I gathered my favorite types of threads to stitch it. And I didn’t limit myself in color choice. After all, I figured if I’m stitching something inspired by my favorite works of art, I should put the best of everything I had into it.
I liked it!
So I designed a few more and then picked my favorites to stitch. I didn’t try to make them look particularly early-Renaissance. After all, if art and craft are absolute imitation, they would never move forward. (That’s my excuse, anyway.) I chose whatever animals I like, whether they show up traditionally in these early tapestries or not.
Finally, when I finished stitching the fourth one, I felt as if I’d fulfilled a little secret dream of mine. I created little bits of stitchery inspired by some of the great works of art that fascinate me most!
This week, I’ve been doing the finishing work on my four tapestry smalls. Next week, I’m going to show them to you and tell you more about them. I can’t wait for you to see them – they were fun to stitch and they’re equally fun to finish and display!
The Lady & the Unicorn Tapestries Lecture
For those of you who are into the history of textiles, who are enchanted by the Unicorn tapestries housed at Cluny, or who enjoy the history of art in general, here’s a video of a lecture by Dr. Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, director of the Cluny museum since 2005, given in Melbourne while the tapestries were exhibited in Australia recently.
In the lecture, Dr. Taburet-Delahaye discusses the significance of the tapestries and shares the process of the recent restoration work that the tapestries have undergone.
If you click on the image below, it will take you to the video on YouTube:
Enjoy this gem – I’m so glad they put it on YouTube for the rest of us!