The Battle of the Animals Tapestry

Frenetic Activity, Frozen in Time

Conserving the TapestryBattle of the Animals is a lavish, action-packed, and vibrant Renaissance tapestry that was made in Flanders during the 1560s. Purchased in 1926 for the inaugural exhibition of the Gallery’s 1926 addition, it was the first tapestry to enter the museum’s collection. One scholar has described it as “the most remarkable example of a 16th-century animal tapestry in any North American museum.”

Although the tapestry’s city and maker are unknown, the brightly-colored battling animals in the foreground and clusters of human hunters and soldiers in the mid- and background relate it to the Flemish tapestry-making center of Oudenaarde. For its wealthy Renaissance audience, Battle of the Animals served as decoration as well as indoor theater.

The Foreground: The Animals

boa_det1-animals-300The foreground of the tapestry teems with exotic animals—both real and fantastic. At the lower left, an ocelot stalks his prey; at the center, the contorted body of a large red hunting dog with a jeweled collar snatches a water fowl from a stream. An ostrich surrounded by different types of reptilian creatures pecks at flora on the stream bank; a unicorn stands nearby.

Scenes of animal combat would have been familiar to the tapestry’s audience, which would have seen them as a form of live entertainment. The educated classes of Renaissance society would have known the more exotic species through illustrations and the real “game parks” of the highest nobility.

The Background: The Hunters

boa_det1-hunters-300Tapestries like the Battle of the Animals, composed of non-narrative scenes that include forests and lush greenery filled with animals and hunting scenes, are sometimes called “game park” tapestries. Here, hunters and soldiers with their dogs race through the wooded landscape. Some are hunting deer or other wild game; others seem to be pursuing each other. A rabbit, perhaps symbolizing fertility, sits in the crook of the tree at the center mid-ground. A castle and farmstead are seen in the distance.

During the Renaissance, hunting—particularly for boar, stag, and other “noble” game—was a privilege reserved exclusively for the wealthiest, royal classes. Battle of the Animals, with its battling animals in the foreground and hunters in the background, also draws comparisons between the activities of wild animals and humans.

The Border: Hunting and Revelry

boa-right-300Even though usually related by theme, the borders of tapestries were often designed separately from the center portion. Here, the figures in the corners stand with animal mascots. In both the left and right lower corners, Diana, the goddess of the hunt, is shown with her dog. Her presence represents a strong thematic link between the border and the game park activity of the main tapestry.

The remainder of the border is filled with Renaissance ornament, grotesques, satyrs, and animal-headed musicians. It adds additional liveliness to the already action-packed main tapestry, creating an atmosphere of revelry. Many of the ornamental designs probably came from the print sources that were often used by tapestry designers.