Copyright Pol Mayer / Paul M.R. Maeyaert www.pmrmaeyaert.com

Admire the skills of Flemish weavers at the tapestry collection in Oudenaarde

Oudenaarde, the capital of the Flemish Ardennes, is world famous for its tapestries and silversmiths. This and much more has been brought together in a contemporary presentation at the MOU at the city's historic town hall and cloth hall.

The highlight of the MOU, the Museum of Oudenaarde and the Flemish Ardennes, is the collection of tapestries produced in the city. The East Flemish town of Oudenaarde was once synonymous with tapestry production with over half the town's population involved in this industry during its glory days.

“Today the MOU's collection of Oudenaarde tapestries encompasses thirty-two works. Sixteen are on show in the upper cloth hall” says Hilde Avet of MOU.

The venue itself is an impressive sight. The relatively young museum brings together collections previously exhibited at different venues. Thanks to its recent establishment it has been able to use the latest audio-visual technologies and ideas to present its story. Of course, there is the tapestry collection, but the MOU also houses a collection of religious and secular silverware that is among the most impressive in Europe. In addition to being a centre of tapestry production, Oudenaarde silversmiths once earned themselves an international reputation. The museum itself is spread over the Gothic town hall and the adjoining 14th century cloth hall that used to be a covered market. The town hall is a prime example of flamboyant Gothic and together with its bell tower is a UNESCO world heritage site. Part of the museum is devoted to Oudenaarde's most famous son, the painter Adriaan Brouwer, while artefacts from across the centuries tell the story of the city's turbulent history.

As far as tapestries are concerned Oudenaarde is most famous for its verdures, tapestries depicting lush green landscapes. It's from the many hues of green used to represent trees, foliage and flowers that this type of tapestry takes its name. Hilde Avet: “The range of tapestries on show is rotated from time to time to allow us to show all items”.

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Weavers drew their inspiration from the Bible, mythology and antiquity. Pastoral scenes too are displayed, but the highlight of the MOU's tapestry collection is formed by a set of three tapestries representing scenes from the life of Alexander the Great. “The museum also boasts a tapestry workshop where the collection is maintained and repaired” says Hilde Avet. “On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the tapestry workshop is open to visitors, while visits for groups can be booked at other times. We are always on the look-out for new items, but the idea is to extend our range and not just to purchase more of the same.”

Tapestry weaving started in Oudenaarde towards the end of the 14th century. Together with Arras (now in France), Tournai, Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent the city became one of the most important centres for tapestry production in Flanders. By the fifteenth century the tapestry industry was flourishing. Production was at its height during the sixteenth century when Oudenaarde tapestries were exported to courts across Europe. Oudenaarde tapestries were high quality. There was great variety and Oudenaarde tapestries were shipped across the continent in great numbers.

Unfortunately, the religious wars put a damper on the industry. Oudenaarde sided with the Protestants and after the Spaniards restored Catholic rule in the Southern Netherlands many Oudenaarde weavers decided to flee to the North. Tapestry weaving continued under Spanish rule, but it had lost much of its gloss. As late as the eighteenth century Oudenaarde tapestries were still being produced in the city, but the town's weavers were unable to keep up with French competition and changing fashions.

At MOU don't forget to explore a 16th century tapestry once presented to Alexander Farnese, governor of the Spanish Netherlands in the 1580's. Rotating prisms allow you to blow up the tapestry and discover its finest details.

The big Adriaan Brouwer exhibition at MOU has now just closed, but the museum still screens a presentation shedding light on the life of one of Oudenaarde's most famous sons. The story of Adriaan Brouwer's parents is that of many of the Oudenaarde townspeople at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries. The young Brouwer accompanied his parents to Gouda in the Northern Netherlands during the religious upheaval. Here they were able to practise their religion in freedom. Brouwer may have worked for the celebrated Dutch painter Frans Hals in Haarlem, though conclusive proof is lacking. We know that by 1631 he has returned south to Antwerp. His legacy mainly consists of genre paintings depicting everyday scenes in taverns or among peasants. Peasants play cards, dance, carouse and make merry. Sadly, Brouwer died in poverty in his mid-thirties, though we do know that he was admired by Rubens and Rembrandt, who both had paintings by Adriaan Brouwer in their collection.

Oudenaarde was once also a bustling centre of silversmiths, especially during the Ancien Regime, the years before Napoleon set Europe alight. The MOU showcases a collection of religious and secular silver brought together by Hélène Alligoridès and Ernest De Boever. Their collection includes top works from across the continent of Europe as well as items that reveal the skills of local silversmiths.

On the ground floor of the MOU you are able to discover the history of the town thanks to a collection of historic objects and contemporary interactive applications. The story of Oudenaarde is closely linked to the River Scheldt or Schelde, on the banks of which it was founded and which was largely responsible for its growth. We see how this trading centre became a fortified town. Under Louis XIV Oudenaarde fell to French troops on three occasions. When the French were victorious in 1667 General Vauban ordered major fortifications to be built, but in 1708 in the Spanish War of Succession Louis XIV was to experience one of his greatest defeats. 180,000 troops fought in the Battle of Oudenaarde. 6,000 soldiers died on one single day. In the end British, Prussian and Dutch troops were victorious. Swords, guns and even a canon from this battle are displayed at MOU.

Paul M.R.Maeyaert / Pol Mayer

The MOU, the Museum of Oudenaarde and the Flemish Ardennes, is located on Oudenaarde market square and is open Tuesday through Sunday.  Photos in this article provided by MOU in Oudenaarde.