BBC Culture

The 10 most beautiful tapestries

About the author

Jason Farago is an art critic and columnist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. After many years in London, Jason now lives once again in his hometown of New York.

  • The Apocalypse Tapestry, 1377–1382

    Today we often think of painting as the central medium of Western art history, but for much of the medieval and early modern period, tapestries were the most valued form of artistic expression. This ambitious tapestry sequence, running to 100 m and depicting scenes from the Book of Revelation, is the oldest surviving woven artwork in France. It’s an intensely religious work, but also a political one: made during the height of the Hundred Years’ War, it captures the privations and fears of a nation in seemingly endless struggle. (Hemis/Alamy)

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, circa 1440–50

    In the medieval period, tapestries had a dual purpose: they did not just decorate a room, they also insulated it. These Netherlandish tapestries, now in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, are believed to have been hung in Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, owned by the impressive Bess of Hardwick (1521-1608), who married four times and got richer with each wedding. The tapestries, which depict pursuits of boars, bears, swans and otters, show hunting as not just a sport but a courtly endeavour, full of pageantry, fashion and flirting. (Interfoto/Alamy)

  • The Lady with the Unicorn, late 15th Century

    These dense and glorious tapestries were nearly lost to history; they were sitting in storage for centuries before a revival of interest in medieval art in the late 19th Century. They are classics of the millefleur (‘thousand flowers’) style, with backgrounds saturated with natural decoration, and while five of the six compositions illustrate the human senses, in the last tapestry the lady withdraws from the animals and seems to renounce earthly worries for the spiritual realm. They are now displayed in the Musée de Cluny, France’s national museum of the Middle Ages. (Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images)

  • The Unicorn Tapestries, circa 1500

    The greatest prizes of the Cloisters, the museum constructed from five medieval abbeys imported from western Europe to the north of Manhattan, are this suite of seven tapestries depicting the hunting of a unicorn, probably made in Brussels or Liège five centuries ago. Yet although scholars have been examining them for years, they remain mysterious: does the unicorn represent Christ, for example, or are the tapestries a secular celebration of love and marriage? Even the monogram “AE” that appears on the works has never been deciphered. (Heritage Image Partnership Ltd /Alamy)

  • The Rape of Helen, early 17th Century

    In the early modern era, the textile trade expanded into a worldwide enterprise, linking markets and manufactories from Asia to Europe to the New World. This extraordinary tapestry, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is a prime example from the early days of globalisation. Made in China but destined for the Portuguese market, the cotton weaving is embroidered with silk and gold, and it depicts a scene of Greek mythology – Helen’s capture by the Trojans – with Sinitic motifs such as roaring dragons and geometric waves. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

  • The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, early 18th Century

    The Western world’s finest tapestries were made by the Gobelins manufactory, established in Paris in the late 17th Century and directed at first by Charles le Brun, the official painter to Louis XIV. Reopened in the 18th Century, the Gobelins weavers consciously imitated easel paintings, adding greater varieties of coloured dyes to increase their verisimilitude. The frame – decorated with the fleur-de-lis emblem of the French royal court – emphasises the painterly source of the composition, a tableau by Jean Jouvenet that today hangs in the Louvre. This is a rare survivor; many Gobelins tapestries were destroyed during the French Revolution. (Galerie des Gobelins)

  • Holy Grail Tapestries, 1898–99

    Perhaps the leading figure in the later days of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, Edward Burne Jones was a painter who had a strong interest in decorative arts. Working with William Morris, the firebrand designer and socialist, Burne Jones produced a set of ten tapestries – now in Birmingham in the UK – that retell the story of Arthur, Lancelot and the other knights of the Round Table. Their anxious classicism is both a reaction to and an escape from the upheavals of British society at the turn of the century. (Sir Edward Burne-Jones/William Morris/John Henry Dearle)

  • We Are Living on a Star, 1958

    Scandinavia has a long history of tapestry arts dating back to the era of the Vikings – a history that Hannah Ryggen, a self-taught and politically engaged Norwegian artist now enjoying a major rediscovery, drew on for her most ambitious work. In an aqueous expanse of blue fabric, a nude man and woman drift above a churning expanse of mysterious symbols, afloat between society and the natural world. We Are Living on a Star was hanging in the Norwegian prime minister’s office in Oslo in 2011 when a terrorist detonated a car bomb that killed eight people. The tapestry has since been mostly repaired, but it retains an unfixable tear. (Hannah Ryggen, Vi lever på en stjerne (We Are Living on a Star), 1958)

  • Musa, 2009

    The world’s greatest living painter, Gerhard Richter, has never been only that: he was a performance artist early in his career, has produced photographs and sculptures for decades and even made a series of four tapestries in recent years. Just like in centuries past, the tapestries were made on a hefty jacquard loom and replicate the imagery of an earlier painting – though here, instead of any mythological subject, the work reproduces one of Richter’s trademark squeegeed abstractions. While the initial painting is a messy composition, the tapestries exhibit rigorous symmetry, perhaps reminiscent of Islamic decorative arts. (Oliver Berg/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Congregation, 2014

    Kiki Smith is one of the major exponents of a revived romanticism in contemporary art, reintroducing questions of nature and spirituality after decades of formal purgation. Well known for her drawings and sculptures, Smith has lately turned to tapestry – such as in this beguiling composition depicting a nude maiden in communion with squirrels and a faun. But whereas the subject matter may seem medieval, the process is thoroughly modern: Smith works with digital technology, and the forceful abstract background results from dozens of overlaid files. (Kiki Smith)