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Tapestry

  • Place of origin:

    Peru (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1680-1720 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Woven wool, silk and silver-gilt thread on line

  • Museum number:

    933-1901

  • Gallery location:

    Europe 1600-1815, Room 7, The Sheikha Amna Bint Mohammed Al Thani Gallery, case WS

This portion of tapestry is woven mainly in silks with coloured wools and silver-gilt thread and would probably have been used as a wall-hanging or bed-curtain. Although woven in Peru, the design demonstrates a fusion of native techniques and colouring with motifs and imagery imported from Europe and Spain’s East Asian colonies. This suggests that the tapestry was made by local Peruvian craftsmen for Spanish colonisers.

The design depicts a variety of Asian-derived motifs of creatures and flowers. Notably the one-horned xiezhai (from Chinese mythology) and the unicorn appear to have no mythological parallels in the Andes. The stringed instruments being played by the merpeople appear similar in appearance to lutes, which had an established history of use in Spain prior to this date. The colour palette, particularly the deep cochineal red ground, is typically Andean. Cochineal dye was abundant in both Peru and Mexico, and the red yarns would have been dyed there.

The silks would have arrived in Mexico on the Manila galleons which plied their trade from the Philippines after the Spanish conquest in the 1560s. These silks would have come from Asia and were probably treated in Mexico before being sent south to Peru. In the Andes silk yarns were spun and plied before being woven into tapestries, whereas in China silk was used unspun.

The use of silver-gilt thread is another element without an Andean origin. The metal threads are made of solid cut sheet metal wound round a core thread and this method of making suggests they are European in origin, probably imported from Spain, but composed of silver mined in the Americas.

Physical description

A portion of a tapestry woven in coloured wools, silks and silver-gilt threads on cotton. The design depicts a variety of Asian-derived motifs of creatures and flowers against a red background.

At the centre of the design is a large bird with bright plumage, probably a phoenix depicted as being similar in appearance to a peacock. This bird is surrounded by flowers and leaves of differing shapes and sizes and also a number of stems bearing strawberries. Amidst these forms are numerous creatures: merpeople playing stringed instruments (suggestive of lutes); a crowned lion, parrots and other birds with multi-coloured plumage; a unicorn with its head lowered; dog-like animals, one of which wears a golden collar; and two mythical creatures with the appearance of stylised lions.

The design is approximately reversed to either side of what would have been a central axis – as the tapestry has been unevenly cut down, this ‘central axis’ is positioned towards the left of this portion.

The feathers of the birds, fish-scaled tails of the merpeople and the crowns of the lions are woven in silk yarns. All of the white animals are in silk, except for the unicorn which is in a fuzzy woollen yarn. Only the warp threads of the unicorn’s mane are now present, which suggests that it may have originally been woven with gilt or other threads which have since corroded or dispersed.

Technical description (from The Colonial Andes p. 252 – see references):
Tapestry weave, reversible, with single- interlocking and dovetail joins; 'wedge weave'.
Warp: cotton /\ and ///\ 32 per in. (white and light brown), both 2 ply and 3 ply.
Weft: camelid /\ 108 per in. (cochineal red, brown, yellow, purple, blue and white; plied blue and white; red and white, and yellow and brown); silk /\ (green, yellow, purple, light blue, black, and white [some white yarns are very thick, unspun]); silver sheet strip \ on white silk core /\.
Selvages: none preserved (cut on all four edges).
Condition: generally good, colours well-preserved; some staining along lower edge; a few insect holes.

Place of Origin

Peru (probably, made)

Date

1680-1720 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Woven wool, silk and silver-gilt thread on line

Dimensions

Height: 173 cm, Width: 90.1 cm, Height: 1820 mm current frame, Width: 1020 mm current frame, Depth: 55 mm current frame

Object history note

Acquired in 1901 from M. Vitall Benguiat, Importer of Antique Embroideries, brocades, laces, velvets, fine carpets, jewellery, china, works of art, etc. [Cleaning and Renovating carefully Executed] of 11 Savile Row, Bond Street from 33 pieces sent on approval to the Museum on 25th June. The museum bought 921 to 937-1901 from this list.
This piece was described at that time as '2 pieces of Goa Tapestry' and valued at £80 by the dealers. Only an 'Old English chasuble was valued at more (935-1901). The Museum seems to have paid less than the estimate given by the dealers for all pieces bought. For this piece it gave £23. 15.5d. (RP 86501/1901; MA/1/B 1080)

Historical significance: One of three known surviving pieces from the same workshop, with a fascinating combination of Andean, Chinese and European materials, techniques and motifs. See bibliography for more detailed analyses.

Historical context note

Originally a wall-hanging or bed-curtain, this tapestry is one of three known examples of Andean tapestries that are made mainly of silk with Asian derived motifs. All three are thought to have been made in the same workshop. This design is slightly different from the other two pieces, but it shares some motifs with them: the Chinese mythological xiezhai, a phoenix, and a European-style crowned lion. The mermaid playing a stringed instrument is unique to this tapestry and is not Andean in origin.

The weaving is of very good quality. The colour palette is typically Andean, for example the deep cochineal red ground. The exception is the chocolate-brown lions in undyed wools which are the natural colour of the fibre, probably vicuna or guanaco hair.

Cochineal dye was abundant in both Peru and Mexico, and the red yarns would have been dyed there. The silks would have arrived in Mexico on the Manila galleons which plied their trade from the Philippines after the Spanish conquest in the 1560s. These silks would have come from Asia and were probably treated in Mexico before being sent south to Peru.

In the Andes silk threads were spun and plied before being woven into tapestries, whereas in China silk was used unspun. The use of silver metal threads does not have an Andean origin. The metal yarns are made of solid cut sheet metal wound round a core silk thread and this method of making suggests they are European in origin, probably imported from Spain, but composed of silver mined in the Americas.

Elena Phipps suggests that the phoenix, an Asian export, probably 'resonated in the minds of the Andean weavers with the native condor, a large, powerful bird that played an important role in the ritual and ceremonial life of local communities’. The plumage confuses the tail of a peacock with the head and comb of a pheasant, again a sign that the weavers may have been thinking of the condor.

There seems to be no model in Andean art for the Chinese one-horned xiezhai, or the unicorn, nor the mermaids which appear to have Chinese features but for which there is no direct Chinese model. The parrot over the mermaids' heads is familiar in Andean art as a companion to Inca queens.

Comparable example: Textile Museum, Washington (91-504), illustrated in The Colonial Andes [see references].

Descriptive line

Portion of a tapestry, woven in coloured wools, silks and silver-gilt thread, Peru, 1680- 1720

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Kendrick, A.F. 'A Peruvian tapestry', Burlington Magazine, 47, December 1925, pp. 292-97.
Cammann, Shuyler. 'Chinese Influence in Colonial Peruvian Tapestries', Textile Museum Journal, 1 (3), December 1964, pp. 21-34.
Phipps, E., J. Hecht and C.Esteras Martin, eds. The Colonial Andes. Tapestries and Silverwork, 1530-1830, New Haven and London: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2004. ISBN 38041005046396.

Labels and date

Portion of a tapestry
1680–1720

This tapestry was made with Chinese silk imported to Mexico via Manila. The red colour was made from crushed cochineal insects, which were native to South America. The bird in the centre is the mythical Asian phoenix, which is shown with the broad wing-span of the Andean condor. The mermaids play lutes, and some of the flowers resemble Chinese chrysanthemums.

Peru

Coloured wools, silks and gilded thread, tapestry woven

Family label for Europe 1600-1815:

This tapestry shows lots of magical creatures, birds and plants, including different coloured strawberries. Delicious wild strawberries grew in Peru. Merchants brought them back to mix with European ones to make the strawberries we eat today.
Which magical creatures can you find? [09.12.2015]

Production Note

Although woven in Peru, the design demonstrates a fusion of native techniques and colouring with motifs and imagery imported from Europe and Spain’s East Asian colonies. This suggests that the tapestry was made by local Peruvian craftsmen for Spanish colonisers.

Materials

Wool; Silk; Silver-gilt thread; Linen; Cochineal

Techniques

Weaving; Dyeing; Spinning

Subjects depicted

Strawberries; Lions; Flowers; Lute; Phoenix; Unicorn; Insects; Birds; Fruit; Parrot; Mermaid; Dogs; Crown

Production Type

Unique

Collection

Textiles and Fashion Collection

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