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22 September – 13 November 2016 Friend and Foe – Animals in Medieval Textile Art

Eagles, gazelles, lions and peacocks in all their glory – animals bring to life the textiles in which society’s elites once clothed themselves. These luxury fabrics are material testimony to an aristocratic culture. Their representations play on hunting as a privilege of the nobility or on the concept of courtly love. Drawing on literary texts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to medieval romances and Minnesang love poetry, the special exhibition 2016 sheds light on the meaning of these fairy-tale-like textile images.

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Observations of Nature The observation of animals was often connected with hunting in the Middle Ages. The first descriptions of them as objects of study in their own right were produced at the court of Emperor Frederick II. Many works of applied art show animals chasing each other contained inside an ornamental device. │ Iron casket, southern Italy, 12th to 13th century, inv. no. 8.155.69

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Symbolic Interpretations Many animal motifs can be interpreted with the aid of the Physiologus. This work of natural history presumably written in the second century by an anonymous Greek author was widely known in the Christian Middle Ages. Its descriptions invested animals with an allegorical significance, often linking them to the life and works of Jesus. │ Silk with pelicans and dogs, Italy, 2nd half of the 14th century, inv. no. 152

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Heraldry and Mottos Starting in the twelfth century, animals often featured on shields and other parts of a knight’s armour. As heraldic beasts they became family emblems and combined with banderoles showing a life motto might form a device. Textiles patterned in this way were also a form of public communication, comparable with modern-day logos. │ Silk with heraldic elements, Spain, 2nd half of the 15th century, inv. no. 1401

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Hunting as a Privilege of the Nobility Motifs such as leaping hounds under fantastical plants with hunting horns dangling from their branches were never intended to be realistic; what counted was their distinctiveness and recognizability for the viewer. Hunting was a privilege of the nobility in the Middle Ages. Those who could afford such textiles saw their social status confirmed. │ Silk with dogs and hunting horns, Italy, end of the 14th to the beginning of the 15th century, inv. no. 192

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Beasts, Castles and Courtly Love Castles guarded by yapping dogs symbolized the closely guarded Minne, the beloved on whom the literary concept of courtly love turned. The motifs were supplied by the idealized descriptions of courtly society in medieval poetry. │ Two silks with castles, dogs and other animals, both Italy, 2nd quarter to 2nd half of the 14th century, inv. nos 195 and 210a-b

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From Leaping Beasts to Climbing Vines By the Late Middle Ages it was no longer the courtly romance but rather the game of chess that provided the best allegory for an aristocratic, ideal society. On textiles this led to fauna being displaced by flora, especially ornamental vines. A tapestry showing Mary of Burgundy and Emperor Maximilian illustrates this change very well: the pair are shown in robes patterned with climbing vines, playing chess. │ Tapestry (Detail), Flanders, end of the 15th century, inv. no. 95. Bottom and top of an ivory casket for chessmen, northern Italy, 15th century, inv. no. 5.37.69