Behind the Arras: Tapestry Ekphrasis in Spenser and Shakespeare
Magnificent woven tapestries, or arras hangings, were elite status symbols in Tudor England: Flemish arras insulated palace walls, and painted versions adorned humble abodes. Once largely ignored, Renaissance tapestries are experiencing a rediscovery by art historians and cultural critics interested in how these elite objects functioned as pedagogical tools and as powerful---even propagandistic---political instruments. This project foregrounds the significance of fictional tapestries in major works of Elizabethan literature. To unpack the relevance of arras in early modern literature and drama, I describe what would have been obvious to early modern writers and their audiences---contemporary readers and playgoers would have known, for example, how these highly valued objects were made, who owned them, the occasions for their display, and what was commonly figured on their surfaces. A more fully contextualized understanding of literary tapestries forces us to reassess the operation of the rhetorical mode ekphrasis---the verbal description of the visual---in Renaissance poetry and drama.
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