Theatre of Nature

Nature has always been a very important source of inspiration for fine arts. The original interest in it as a model evolved over time into a real cognitive and documentary passion for the surrounding world. Artists interested in the appearance of animals, diverse in terms of forms and colours, and the way they move, as well as the structure and behaviour of plants, studied their nature with analytical inquisitiveness. This kind of scientific and artistic work contributed to the development of the natural sciences.
Realistic tendencies in the field of weaving art appeared in the late Middle Ages. One example of this can be tapestries of the millefleur type, manufactured in France and Flanders from the beginning of the fifteenth century. They depicted figural scenes and heraldic motifs presented against a background of a flat meadow devoid of perspective, filled with the title “a thousand flowers” and figures of animals and insects (e.g. the series The Lady and the Unicorn of the late fifteenth century). Flora and fauna were shown in textiles in a totally naturalistic manner, which allows us today to recognise the majority of their species.
Somewhat later, a complete novelty was an animal and plant landscape, no longer treated as a background or complement to the scene, but as a separate subject matter. This type of textile was called a verdure (French: verdure) from the word verdir, or ”to paint in green”, because of the predominance of this colour. It is sometimes claimed that one of inspirations for this kind of woven depictions was the hunting preferences of clients, as they are often also described as tapestries “to admire hunting” (ad venationem spectantia peristromata) or “fighting animals” (pugnae ferarum). The plant and animal landscape as a separate subject matter initially appeared in tapestries, later in paintings (for example paintings by Roelant Savery, 1576–1639). Verdures created between 1553 and 1560 that are part of the collection of tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus are probably among the first examples of this subject matter in tapestry art.

Porcupine, Conrad Gesner, Historiae Animalium, Vol. 1, 1551, source: Wikipedia, public domain (compare with the over-door tapestry with the Arms of Poland on landscape background with animals - Beaver and Porcupine)

All sorts of collections of patterns available in the sixteenth century, such as sketchbooks (taccuino di disegni), very popular engravings by Albrecht Dürer, zoological atlases or works of animaliers and naturalists such as Pierre Belon and Conrad Gesner, the author of the famous Historiae animalium, provided a rich source of inspiration for artists of that period. Works of this type were included in the range of creative inspiration of weaving workshops and constituted a source of an extensive and relatively unchanging repertoire of motifs, as evidenced by a repetitive nature of certain kinds of animals, for example in tapestries of one series. Tapestries also showed exotic animals from Africa and the New World. This resulted from an interest in contemporary geographical discoveries. In the case of less known or fantastic specimens, creators of tapestries tried to depict them by making use of descriptions, as well as various accounts and legends; that is why their images were often created on the basis of projection. Interestingly, at that time many of the views on the origin, nature and symbolism of plants and animals still constituted a lasting legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages (Physiologus). Artist used available patterns, in which individual specimens were presented as isolated, devoid of any context because animals and plants themselves were their object of interest. Therefore, they did not take into account realities such as the natural environment of existence, and put them together according to their own invention; that is why an exotic animal, such as a camel, could unexpectedly appear with rabbits in the middle of a broadleaved forest (Tapestry A Camel, a Rabbit and a Peacock).
Verdures ilustrated botanical and zoological knowledge at that time in which the real world interspersed with the imaginary one. Therefore, they can be treated as a “theatre of nature”, in which the setting was a mannerist forest and actors were real and fantastic creatures. Separated from the natural environment and arbitrarily compiled, they resulted in the whole composition creating an image slightly diverging from reality, even though its every detail constituted a fully realistic representation of elements of nature.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums),
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 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Arrasy krajobrazowo-zwierzęce (Animal and landscape tapestries), [in:] Arrasy wawelskie (The Wawel Tapestries), edited by Jerzy Szablowski, Anna Misiąg-Bocheńska, Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Magdalena Piwocka, Warszawa 1994, pp. 173–268;
Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy Zygmunta Augusta (The Tapestries of Sigismund Augustus),  Kraków 2007;
Magdalena Piwocka, Arrasy króla Zygmunta Augusta: zwierzęta, cz. 1 (The Tapestries of King Sigismund Augustus: Animals, Part 1), Kraków 2009;
Słownik terminologiczny sztuk pięknych (Terminological Dictionary of Fine Arts), Krystyna Kubalska-Sulkiewicz (ed.), Warszawa 2002.