Saturday, 14 July 2012

St. Thomasteppich visited by St. Thomasguild

The most memorable and impressive event during our visit to Wienhausen (Germany) was the visit to the Thomasteppich or Saint Thomas-tapestry in Kloster Wienhausen. We had made a special appointment with the convent as the tapestries are normally not on display at that time of year (They are in June, during the tapestry weeks). The Thomasteppich is very special for us, as Saint Thomas is the patron saint of our guild, and the tapestry is made in the same decennium as we re-enact: the late 14th century (1370-1380). We were warmly welcomed by the 'konventualinnen' and received answers to our many questions on details of the construction and the tapestry, while our children were kept busy with drawing materials.

The Thomasteppich is a large tapestry, it measures 2.05 by 4.46 meter. The tapestry originally had been even larger, as a small part of the right side and the top has been cut off. Some fragments of the top still remain the depot, which we did not see.

 This image of the Thomasteppich is taken from the blog 'Medieval arts and crafts' and the book Kloster Wienhausen by Horst Appuhn. 1986. ISBN 978-3980131605.

Construction of the Thomas tapestry

The tapestry is made in the so-called Klosterstich (cloisterstich, see Racaire's blog for a detailed pdf handout on this technique) embroidered in wool on rough linen. The klosterstich is a very economical embroidery technique: most of the woollen threads are at the front and only a small amount is at the back of the linen. The wool itself is a S-turned thread twined of two two z-turned threads. The embroidered wool completely covers the linen (unlike the Bayeux tapestry). The linen background consists of several bands which were stiched together, when the embroidery of these bands was finished. In the tapestry museum in Wienhausen this stitching can be seen on some other tapestry fragments, were parts of the embroidery have gone.

This type of woollen tapestry was entirely made within the cloister: the design, the drawing of the design on the linen with special ink and the embroidery were all done by the nuns. But also the making of the linen, the spinning and colouring of the wool (the right side of the tapestry shows a spinning nun and one working flax) was done by them. And finally, even the use of the finished tapestry was restricted to the convent. Once finished, re-enforcement bands were stitched to the back of the tapestry, such that it could  hang safely.

More than one nun worked on the embroidery, though it is not known who worked on the Thomasteppich. On some tapestries individual styles can be distinguished, proving that more nuns worked on a piece. Tapestries took several years to embroider, but also the preparatory work took a year.

The colours used in the Thomasteppich are a bit faded, but for a more than 600 year old tapestry they are still bright. The only colour that has suffered through the ages is the black, which is nearly gone due to the oxidation of the iron. This means that there is little detail on the faces, eyes, nor any accents in the folding of the clothes. Colours used for the Thomasteppich are yellow, red, pink, bluegreen, yellowgreen, dark blue, metal blue, brown, dark grown, beige, lila, natural, and black.

Images of klosterstich and the backside of the Bartholomeuslaken from the book by Tanja Kohwagner-Nikolai "per manus sororum.." Niedersachsische Bildstickereien im Klosterstich (1300-1583). Martin Meidenbauer Verlag, 2006. ISBN 978-3-89975-082-9.

Details of the tapestry

The Saint Thomas tapestry describes the life of the apostle Thomas (doubting Thomas) based on the apocryphal book of Thomas, which tale later became included in the Legenda aurea. The scenes are presented in three rows with two rows of text in old-German, which is very similar to old-Dutch, between them (the text is also likely the place where the linen bands are connected). 

The clothing style, except for Thomas and Christ, is like that in the mid/late 14th century. One can notice the hood, the male cotehardies with many buttons and the female cotehardy with streamers hanging from the arms. The important persons, such as the king wear mi-parti hoses. The knight on the horse is wearing a bascinet with a movable visor, a popular helmet at that time.

In the corners of the tapestry were four shields with coats of arms. Two of them are still complete, of the third only remains a part, and the fourth is missing  Coats of arms on these woollen tapestries were often connected with donors or the abbess, prioress or noble ladies in the convent. It is however not clear to whom the heraldic symbols on the Thomas teppich belong. The griffin (black on a yellow shield) has been suggested to belong to the Earl of Wolgast, but the colours are different and the shield is halved. The lion (blue on yellow shield) could represent Luneburg, but the hearts on the yellow background are missing. The black and yellow striped shield could represent the Family Pallandt.

All detail images from the Thomasteppich were scanned from the tapestry image in the book by Pia Wilhelm "Kloster Wienhausen band III - Die Bildteppiche. Starting from top right and continuing clockwise are: the Indian king and his brother wearing a mi-parti hose; two court members wearing buttoned cotehardies and low-hip knightly belts. The person on the right also wears a hood with a long liripipe. The feet of the hose have pointy toes, also becoming more popular during this time; Next, the female playing the musical instrument has streamers; Finally the knight with the bascinet with aventail and 'klappvisor'. 

Use of the tapestry 

The woollen tapestries were used as hangings on walls and as screens to divide rooms (e.g. the church /choir).  Tapestries also served as 'Memoria', items to help to remember - not only the life of the saint  depicted on the tapestry, but also that of the abbess who ordered the tapestry and its embroiderers, for which it served as a way to conquer death. The legend of Thomas on the tapestry does not strictly follow the official Legenda aurea. The last scene is from the legend as told by Hermann von Fritzlar (a 14th century German mystic), where Saint Thomas returns from the death at Eastern to spend the communion with the faithfull.  

The Thomasteppich is connected to the holy blood (Thomas touched the wound in the side of Christ and as such the blood of Christ) and as such to the cult of the "shrine of the holy sepulchre" in Wienhausen. The Thomas tapestry also links with the ritual of the oblatio, the entrance in the cloister, where the nuns became 'brides' to Christ: Saint Thomas converted some maidens to the Christian faith and they decided to live a celibate life, like the nuns of Wienhausen. The angry husbands forced the Saint  to worship at a heathen temple, which resulted in its destruction and the death of Thomas by the sword of the priest (3rd row, 4th scene on the tapestry). All in all this provides plenty opportunity to display and use the tapestry during appropriate Christian rites.  

Dragons are vegetarians

Is the dragon in the lower left corner of the tapestry a vegetarian? If you look at the the decorative dragons on the tapestry they seem to be eating plants! You can clearly distinguish a leave on the stem at which they are gnawing.

Information on the Saint Thomas tapestry was kindly provided by one of the conventualinnen of Kloster Wienhausen,  as well as from the books "Kloster Wienhausen band III - Die Bildteppiche" by Pia Wilhelm and "per manus sororum..." Niedersachische Bildstickereien im Klosterstich (1300-1583) by Tanja Kaohwagner-Nikolai.


  1. Both Wienhausen and Isenhagen have an extensive collection of beautiful medieval tapestries. In fact they are a medieval treasure trove with also other artefacts such as several glasses, still with their lenses intact. Truly a must for the late 14th century re-enactor.