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Secular Medieval Art: Castles and Tapestries


With rising prosperity, Europeans created more secular art and architecture: grand city halls and luxurious-for-the-day castles and palaces, with their stony walls warmed by finely woven tapestries (like the 500-year-old “Lady and the Unicorn”).

Complete Video Script

[106, Bruges, Belgium] Religion served art and art served religion throughout the Middle Ages. But in the later centuries, with rising prosperity, secular art — art which had nothing to do with God — was becoming increasingly common. It was art that served not the Church but Europe's rich and powerful.

[107, Siena City Hall] And this included architecture. In an increasingly secular society — from Brussels to Siena — it was the Gothic city hall, not the church, that towered over the main square.

[108, Warwick Castle (England), Château de Beynac (France), Château de Chillon (Switzerland), Schönburg Castle (on Germany's Rhine), Eilean Donan Castle (Scotland), Carcassonne (France)] And the elites of the High Middle Ages built Europe's magnificent castles and fortresses…not for their salvation but for both their protection…and their pleasure. From Switzerland to the Rhineland…and from distant Scotland to the south of France,

[109, Burg Eltz (Germany), knights battle at Warwick Castle (Warwick), heraldry at Westminster Abbey (London), folk show in San Marino] Castles and palaces provided a stage for the festivities of the medieval world — of chivalrous knights in shining armor, dazzling heraldry, and tournaments with flags flying.

[110, Reifenstein Castle, Vipiteno, Italy] And, with Europe's new-found wealth, these fortified palaces were decorated with increasingly secular art. Rather than saints and Bible lessons, this noble family wanted voluptuous swoops and curls — a fantasy of elves, jesters, archers, and fruity symbols of fertility.

[111] Tapestries on the wall both warmed the stone rooms and brightened the atmosphere, with colorful scenes that shared the feudal lord's perspective on current events, taught morals, and told folk tales.

[112, Flemish tapestry: Story of Gombaut and Macée, 17th century, Gruuthuse Museum, Bruges] This series of tapestries (from a slightly later age) gives us a peek into the everyday lives of ordinary people. With captions in Old French, it cleverly spins a story of youthful lustiness that shatters stereotypes of medieval piety.

[113] A shepherd girl cradles a bowl of soup in her lap. The flirtatious shepherd cuts a slice of bread and — as the text reads — saucily asks if he can "dip into the goodies in her lap." Another woman brazenly strips off her socks to dangle her feet in water. Couples freely dance together under the apple tree of temptation and around a bagpipe — symbolic back then of hedonism. Where does all this wantonness lead? Marriage. Music plays, the table is set, and the meat's on the BBQ, as the bride enters with her groom. The bride smiles bravely, closely escorted by two men, while the scared groom gulps nervously.

[114] Tapestries were designed by Europe's best artists and woven from rich fabrics in high-tech-for-the-day factories. They became a distinctly medieval art form.

[115, The Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, c. 1500, Cluny Museum, Paris] This exquisite series captures Europe's blossoming appreciation for sheer beauty at the end of the Middle Ages. It's a celebration of all the senses.

[116] There's taste: a woman takes candy from a servant's dish to feed to her parakeet…while the little dog licks his lovingly woven chops. Hearing: the elegant woman plays sweetly on an organ, calming an audience of wild beasts. In this fanciful world, humans and their fellow creatures live in harmony in an enchanted garden. Sight: the unicorn cuddles up and looks at himself in the lady's mirror, pleased with what he sees. The lion turns away and snickers. Touch: that's the most basic and dangerous of the senses. Here, the lady strokes the unicorn's horn…and the lion looks out at us to be sure we get the double entendre. Medieval Europeans were enjoying the wonders — and physical pleasures — of life.

[117] The words on our lady's tent read: "To My Sole Desire." What is her only desire? Is it jewelry? Or is she putting the necklace away and renouncing material things? Is it God? Love? The unicorn and lion open the tent. Is she going in to meet the object of her desire? Or just stepping out…to embrace the world?