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Vine and the Wine in Tapestry



1a. The Bayeux Tapestry is not, strictly speaking, a ‘tapestry’: rather, it is a piece of embroidery made from wool, dyed with nine natural colors, on pieces of brown linen. It was made to be hung in Bayeux Cathedral, for the benefit of a largely illiterate population.


The Bayeux Tapestry is made up of nine linen panels, and measures around 68.3m by 50.3cm. Each scene is accompanied by a commentary in Latin. A total of 1515 subjects (people, animals, buildings and trees) furnish the audience with a mine of information about the 11th century.

The large quantities of wine brought on the journey saved William from dysentery during the whole month of October (the Battle of Hastings itself took place on the 14th). When the wine finally ran short in the two first weeks of November, half of the Duke’s men – and William himself – were struck down with fever after drinking the water of the marshy Hastings region. What would have become of the Norman victory if they had not brought so much wine?

1b. Bishop Odo blesses the first banquet held by William the Conqueror, his half-brother, and his Norman barons on English soil. He blesses the food and drink (wine). He can be recognised by his shaven head, as well as by the fish placed before him. He joined the invading forces of his brother Willian to attack England, having been called upon to supply 100 ships. His official role was to offer up prayers for victory and to give moral support. He is presented in the middle of the Bayeux Tapestry’s combat scenes; it seems very likely that he commissioned it in order to decorate the nave of his new cathedral in Bayeux in 1077 (William had named him, still a teenager, Bishop of Bayeux in 1049). We do not know exactly who created the Bayeux Tapestry – its artisans are unknown – but the most common historical hypotheses claim that it is Anglo-Saxon. 



2. The harvest of the Earth, with the reaping of the “evil-minded” who refuse to repent "is cast into the great winepress of th wrath of God".


"And another angel came out of the temple which is in heaven, he also having a sharp sickle. And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe. And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs" (Revelation 14: 17-20).

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3-4. For Christians, it took the coming of Christ to erase the sins of mankind’s first patriarch. Jesus of Nazareth introduced himself to his disciples with the words: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman,” and continues: “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:1-5). The first Christians often depicted bunches of grapes and chalices – widespread primitive Christian symbols – in baptistery (ceiling) or pavement (floor) mosaics. Latin poets and the Early Church Fathers explained the metaphor. Such imagery then spread in pictorial art throughout Europe, and was linked to the theme of the ‘mystical bath’, taken in the blood of Christ, himself the ‘Fountain of virtue, grace and life’.


The mystical winepress (in Latin, torculus Christi) is an allegorical theme in Christian iconography, an image of the Chuch where Christ is represented as part of a bunch of grapes crushed in a winepress during the Passion, his blood and the grape juice becoming one and the same. He is shown kneeling or lying between the screws of the press, or treading the grapes while carrying his cross: “Christ treads the grapes, and the blood streaming from his injuries mixes with the wine bursting from the grapes...” This Medieval image complements the image of the vine already present in paleo-Christian iconography.


5-6. The Abbey of Chaise-Dieu, of mid-Gothic style, holds a collection of 14 tapestries, of which 12 form a complete suite 80m in length. This wall covering for the choir recounts the life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Last Judgement.


It was commissioned in 1501 by Abbott James of Saint Nectaire, and completed in 1518. It was initially intended for display during events, namely religious festivals. Two other pieces depict the Nativity and the Resurrection; they were probably commissioned by the Abbott for his personal use. In both cases, there remains no trace of the workshop (or workshops) which created these pieces, woven in wool, linen, silk and metallic thread. Art historians believe that it must have been a Flemish workshop – at the time, only the workshops of Arras, Brussels and Tournai were large enough to handle a creation of such dimensions and quality.


The tapestries are arranged as a triptych linking the episodes of the Old and New Testament. Because whatever “the Old Testament has promised, the New Testament has brought to light; whatever the former announced in secret, the latter proclaims openly. In this way, the Old Testament is the prophet of the New Testament; and the best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament” (Saint Gregory the Great, Homiliæ in Ezechielem). The central scene depicts an episode from the New Testament, and the two others those of the Old Testament.

Numerous iconographic sources come from the Biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), a collection of biblical images, annotated in vernacular language, which was very popular at the end of the Middle Ages. Such volumes are generally composed of 40 to 50 pages. Each page is structured in the same way – by illustrating a scene from the life of Christ taken from the New Testament, which is then linked to two episodes from the Old Testament. These Bibles were aimed at a clerical audience. Through their clear and uniform structure, these edifying images were meant to help priests prepare their sermons.


The term “paupers” was only used in later years and is probably referring to those who are “poor in spirit” (“The prideful seek earthly power, whereas the poor in spirit seeks the Kingdom of Heaven” – Saint Augustine). The books were probably not aimed at those who were “economically poor”, as the cost of such a Bible would have remained high. The Paupers’ Bibles differed from a Bible moralisée (moralising Bible) through their size, form and audience: they were much shorter, and centred on image rather than text. Bibles moralisées, more refined and expensive, were aimed at the aristocracy. They were illuminated manuscripts of Bible verses in Latin, featuring a commentary of moral lessons with miniatures illustrating each extract.

7. This splendid Last Supper is one of a group of four tapestries based on tapestry cartoons by Bernaert van Orley, one of the leading lights of the 16th century Brussels school. The artist was adept at blending Nordic traditions and Italian spirit. He brought together the emotional charge and close detail of Albrecht Dürer’s wood carving of the Last Supper (Dürer also inspired the composition) and the monumental figures and spatial construction which characterise Raphael. Doubtless he took much inspiration from the latter’s sketches for The Acts of the Apostles, a series of tapestries destined for the Sistine Chapel, which were sent to a tapestry-maker in Brussels (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).


8. The third of a series of four tapestries illustrating the life of man divided into twelve six-year periods, this tapestry shows Bacchus at the centre, representing the ‘autumn years’. July, August and September represent the ages 36 to 54. The stories show the centaur Chiron teaching medicine to the young Aesculapius; Joseph directing the gathering of the harvest in anticipation of the lean years to come; and Hercules gathering the golden apples of the Hesperides, the last of his twelve labors (Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC).


9. This tapestry belongs to The Months Series, designed for presentation in a single room in the style of a continuous frieze. Devoted to the month of September, the zodiac signs Scorpio and Libra are depicted within a tondo (a circular motif) in the upper right-hand corner. The personification of the month is a young nude man shown pointing to the sun at the top right, with vine leaves around his waist and head. The pedestal on which he is standing displays the verse for the month: “September ferments the grapes and prepares the wine, gives grateful pleasures to the bird and gathers the best of every month”. This allegorical figure can be interpreted as an image of Bacchus, but may also be a more general allegory of Autumn, inspired by the iconography of late Antiquity. Behind him, four peasants operate the “arm” of a large wine press, while everyone around them carries out different tasks tied to the harvest.

10. This tapestry shows the stages of wine production, from the picking of the grapes to the pressing and first tasting.

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11. The Seven Capital Sins series intends to show a spectacular procession of sinners over seven tapestries. Each piece is dedicated to a single capital sin. The capital sins, or “vices”, are “head” sins (capita). They are not the most serious, but they lead to others. Their nomenclature was systematised in the 13th century by Saint Thomas Aquinas. They are: pride, gluttony (or addiction), sloth (or acedia, linked to sadness of spirit), lust, avarice, anger and envy.


In the modern sense, gourmandise is hardly a negative word. Gluttony differs from gourmandise in that it implies excess and lack of regard. In this tapestry, gluttony has wings and vine leaves in her hair; she is seated in a cart pulled by harpies*, following the gluttons Cleopatra, Alexander the Great and Silenus, with a young Bacchus leading the way.

*  Harpies are gods of devastation and divine vengeance. They are faster than the wind and invulnerable; cackling, they devour everything in their path, leaving only their excrement behind. Some authors give them the faces of women or girls and the talons of birds of prey.


12. Gombault greets Macée, his fiancée, accompanied by her father. Macée’s father, carrying her dowry in his purse, is sumptuously dressed in an embroidered doublet, with flowers in his hat. The witness is carrying a richly-decorated wine jug and is sporting the same flowers, indicating (like the servants) his connection to the Gombault family. This tapestry has been said to represent the wedding of Charles VIII and Anne, Duchess of Britanny (1491)*. This assertion rests on two points: that Macée is wearing a crown, and that the newlyweds’ clothes are much more elegant and refined that the outfits of shepherds and shepherdesses.

* In Langeais, near Tours, France


13. In the 17th century, the role of wine in seduction was a popular subject for many Dutch painters. Dirck Hals, Gerrit Van Honthorst and Jan Steen all represent the association between wine and love. Such is the approach of the weavers of this tapestry. Such images are also used to celebrate the senses (a popular theme in Classical art), which are represented by this scene of a joyful company. If wine and the grape represent the sense of taste, the sense of sight is shown through the fleeting glance shared by the lovers.

For Dutch artists, the notion of Joyful Company signifies a small group of people shown enjoying themselves; they are generally seated, drinking and often playing music too. Such scenes were very common during the “golden age” in Holland, the 17th century. Some estimate that almost two-thirds of Dutch genre scenes depict people drinking. These gatherings range from “quality” groups in refined interiors or gardens (such scenes might be titled Elegant Company or Gallant Company) to groups of drunken men and women in taverns, often in the company of prostitutes. Joyful Company artworks can put across a very clear moral message about excess – whether too much drink, lavish spending, fornication… Others simply want to celebrate the pleasures of social life. Many pieces fall somewhere between the two extremes and are hard to interpret, “containing within them a clear contradiction between their objective of condemning certain types of excess and the amusing, attractive aspects of such behaviours and their depiction.”

Find out more: Gallery Seduction and Love  >>



14. In the 17th century, representations of the four seasons were popular in royal palaces because the transition between the seasons was guided by the sun, which Louis XIV had adopted as an emblem. In line with contemporary tastes, each season is represented by an episode from mythology. As the harvests took place in September, Bacchus often stood for autumn – also represented by the harvest baskets and, as is the case here, Diana, goddess of the hunt. In this tapestry, Bacchus and Diana are shown sitting on clouds; they hold a floral frame containing a portrait of Louis XIV hunting a deer on horseback. The castle of Saint-Germain is shown in the background; in the foreground, several objects illustrate the autumn season. A ring of laurel leaves makes up the horizontal part of the border; the vertical borders contain a flower and fruits motif, interrupted halfway by the heraldic arms of France and Navarre (source: base Joconde, France).


15. Syphax was a king of the ancient Numidian Masaesyli tribe during the last quarter of the 3rd century BC. During the second Punic War, he initially allied himself to the Romans, thereby opposing Gaia, king of Eastern Numidia, and his son Massinissa, who were on the Carthaginian side. In his 28th book, Livy reports that Scipion the African, coming from Carthage, was surprised to meet at the Numidian prince Syphax’s court Hasdrubal Gisco, who had pulled out of Spain before the Romans arrived. Deadly enemies, both were hoping to ally themselves to Syphax. As there was no chance of bringing the pair to the negotiation table, Syphax invited them both to a banquet (206BC).


16. For the inauguration of the Beaune wine museum in 1949, the town commissioned a tapestry by Jean Lurçat. “This tapestry conveys the style of Lurçat, which is exuberant and lively,” explained Laure Ménétrier, former chief of the region’s museums. “It shows us a fantasy world, brimming with detail. The artist explores eternal life through nature… A cockerel makes an appearance, as in many of Jean Lurçat’s tapestries. Here, it is shown treading red grapes.” (source: Bien Public)


"Feet in the air and head upside-down, a skeleton breathes in alcohol fumes, which transform him into foliage. He regains life by making himself drunk on light from a sun whose every ray leads to a bottle of wine. In the centre, a troubadour plays the lute – or is it Aesop? He has an owl on his head, a symbol of wisdom. To the right, a cockerel treads grapes in a basin full of holes, through which the wine spurts and reaches the head, heart and genitals of a man lying there. Musical partitions and poetic texts are scattered here and there; references to mythology (Bacchus) and the Bible (Adam and Eve) mix joyfully in this dreamlike universe. Lurçat’s sparkling, flamboyant world features some recurring figures: the sun, of course; the butterflies, the owl and the cockerel; not to mention fantasy animals borrowed from the medieval repertoire." (Source : La Tribune de l'art").


​The cockerel allows Lurçat to experiment with a wide range of colors. "No, no, it’s not a mania. Familiar themes always have hidden meanings, concealing obligations or obsessions. That said, I have always been seduced by the virility and life that shines out from this animal, whose ambition is to wake humans, to make the sun rise, to herald the break of day, and…isn’t that enough to inspire a painter? Day, life, action…” (Jean Lurçat, Letter to a friend, february, 1956).

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