Early tapestries figured on page and stage

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Rebecca Olson

England had Shakespeare but no Michelangelo, at least, so goes the usual view of Renaissance arts.

Literary scholar Rebecca Olson offers a different perspective. While it’s true that England had no painter such as Michelangelo, she argues, there was a lively visual arts culture in the form of huge, vivid tapestries.

“The standard account is that while painting and architecture flourished in Italy during the Renaissance, the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation left England virtually devoid of visual representation,” said  Olson,  a Center Research Fellow and assistant professor of English in OSU’s School of Literature, Writing, and Film. “What the English did have, scholars have maintained, was poetry and drama.”

In fact, she said, Early Modern England was rich in opulent tapestries known as arras that were on view to men and women of all social levels.  Olson’s book-in-progress, Weaving Device: The Arras in Early Modern Fiction, is the first extensive study of the representation of the tapestries in English literature.To understand the tapestries and the part they played in contemporary life, she said, it’s important to understand their repre-sentation in works by Shakespeare and other writers.

“While scholarship on tapestries is dominated by critics interested in the role they played in supporting European imperialism, my work reveals that in the literature of the period, tapestries are associated with people with little or no political power, women in particular.”

Renaissance tapestries often featured words as well as images, and therefore resist categorization as either “image” or “word.” Tapestries in literature underscore the similarities between woven images and written narrative. “Text” and “textile” both come from the Latin “texere,” meaning to weave, and narrative terms such as “plot,” “clue,” and “spinning yarns” refer explicitly to textile vocabulary.

“Interestingly, we continue to use textile words as metaphors for new technologies,” Olson said, and offered “web” and online “threads” as examples. “In the early modern period, when most households still produced their own cloth, such metaphors would have been very concrete. . . I argue that the tapestry provided a narrative model to which England’s first published writers aspired, one that was beautiful by virtue of its complexity, dimension, and non-linear structure.”

Olson’s study pays close attention to tapestries that were mentioned but not described in a literary text. “I propose that writers deliberately left arras hangings ‘blank’ so that their readers could project their own imagined surfaces—memories of tapestries they had seen in life, for example—onto the text for a more interactive and personal reading experience.”

Two important examples are the tapestry through which Hamlet stabs Polonius, and Innogen’s “tapestry of silk and silver” in Cymbeline, both of which function as far more than mere background in the dramas.

“Although we have traditionally read early modern texts as propagandistic or straightforwardly didactic, paying attention to the tapestries within the texts helps us to see the ways writers actually encouraged readers to make the texts their own.”