A Series of 'Giant Leaf' Tapestries

In the room next to the large sitting room of the back house the inventory notes, in addition to a substantial amount of household linen and decorative textiles for beds and tables, a series of tapestries: "Ten pieces, both large and small, of tapestry with large foliage." The tapestries were stored in a chest, and we may assume that they were only put up in the sitting room for special occasions. The sheer size of the set is remarkable. The smaller pieces were probably meant to be hung between or above windows, and together the ten tapestries must have made for impressively rich decoration for this room. They presented to the viewer compositions of large-scale leaves, possibly enlivened by a few small animals, as is the case with some extant contemporary examples, and they would have transformed the interior into an exotic landscape.

In aristocratic as well as in church inventories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, tapestries of this type are referred to variously as forest work, verdours with brode leaves, tapezerie a verdure or verdure à grande feuillage. They first made their appearance in the 1520s and 1530s and became increasingly fashionable in the course of the sixteenth century. They reflected a growing interest in the plants and flowers introduced into Europe from Asia and the Americas; the occasional inclusion of parrots and other exotic animals only heightened the effect. Particularly sumptuous series, woven in silk and accented with gold and silver thread, were made in the famous Brussels workshops for the most demanding patrons of the period, namely the Emperor Charles V and the English King Henry VIII. Less costly versions, woven in wool and without the precious metal thread, soon came to be produced in other tapestry-weaving centers of the Southern Netherlands, in Enghien, Geraardsbergen and Oudenaarde. Although comparatively few giant leaf tapestries survive to this day, there must have been a large-scale production of these decorative textiles at the time. They could also provide a perfect backdrop for the presentation of a coat of arms: a 'giant leaf' tapestry woven for the merchant banker Wolfgang Haller von Hallerstein, a Fugger agent in Antwerp and later Mary of Hungary's treasurer, prominently displays the arms granted him by Charles V. The Ximenez-Da Vega inventory surely would have mentioned a coat of arms, had it been woven into the textiles meant to adorn the sitting room - but even without this element, a series of giant leaf tapestries must have been prized possessions for the wealthy merchant family.

Birgitt Borkopp-Restle, University of Bern


Franses, Simon, and David Franses. Giant Leaf Tapestries of the Renaissance. New York: Franses Gallery, 2005.

Campbell, Thomas. Henry VIII and the Art of Majesty: Tapestries at the Tudor Court. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Delmarcel, Guy. Flemish Tapestry. London: Abrams, 2000. 191-194.

Large leaf tapestry with animals, third quarter of the sixteenth century, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Image: © Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Large Leaf Verdure with a Rhinoceros, tapestry, flemish, Helsingor, Kronborg Castle_S139035