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Introducing the Calicut Tapestry series

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Voyage de Caluce – Voyage to Calicut

Some months ago, I wrote about the wood carvings by Burgkmair on Calicut Sprenger, Burgkmair and the Savages of Calicut. This time I will introduce you to what is known as the Calicut tapestry series from Tournai, the Flemish weaving center.

It was the crowning moment of Portuguese age of discoveries. Calicut had been discovered, Malabar had been connected and a commemoration was in order. The Portuguese wanted to show the world the exotic nature of the orient, and at the same time the vast difference in style and cultural advancement of the white man. The Calicut tapestry series was to be carried out in Antwerp and Dom Manual VI insisted that the depiction be accurate. Images and events were to be shown naturally and 25 themes were to be drawn covering the entire voyage of Vasco Da Gama from Lisbon to Calicut.

Various tapestries were made in Southern Netherlands in the 16th century and one of the important centers was in Tournai (Tower) which was originally occupied by English and later came under the Habsburg rule.

Two things stand out – the fact that the artists had to work on written or oral accounts of the travelers and secondly the strange ideas they had in their own minds of lands and people far away which found its way into the images. It is said by experts that the weavers even used images from the old tapestries portraying the exploits of Alexander the Great. As children listen to parents reciting tales of high romance or adventure, the people of Europe hung on the tales told by sailors returning from faraway lands  and in Flanders the weavers took stories brought back by Vasco da Gama's men and wove them into these tapestries. As there were no newspapers, rich nobles procured such tapestries commemorating and explaining the event.

Originally 26 panels were ordered, to introduce the oriental exotica to gawking European public, and thus were introduced the camel, giraffe, black skinned people, naked children, or outlandish costumes. The Voyage to Calicut series was completed in 1504. It was very popular and many copies were made.

The voyage to Calicut was procured for the regent Margaret of Austria, from Clement Sarazzin according to Delmarcel. The picture depicted is called the Voyage de Caluce, another name for Calicut. However Jardine and Brotton and others state that the tapestry maker was Giles Le Castre and sold 5 panels from the series through the shops of Arnold Poissonier to Robert Wytfel (Wingfield), counselor of Henri VIII or England in 1513.

The tapestry depicted shows Gama’s leave taking and arrival at Calicut, with the audience before the king, the procession of the monks on the right and at the left reaching Calicut meeting the bearded Zamorin (I am not 100% sure of this part as yet)  and unloading a unicorn.


Flemish tapestry from the 15th to the 18th century - Guy Delmarcel
Global Interests: Renaissance Art Between East and West - Lisa Jardine, Jerry Brotton
Circa 1492: art in the age of exploration Jay A. Levenson, National Gallery of Art (U.S.)


  1. P.N. Subramanian

    Yes I also wondered if our Zamorins had beards. Some of the panels would have been bought by Indian princely states as well?

  1. Maddy

    Thanks PNS..

    these were never available in India, they were sold only to curious wealthy people in Europe.In India main imports at that time were horses, luxury items, gold & silver, though not paintings and tapestries..

    Well, a new Zamorin who came to power just after the death of the previous one would be observing the Diksha and would have a beard for a full one year.

    come to think of it- I think there are other paintings also that depict him having a beard when receiving the Gama...

  1. Siddhartha Joshi

    Superb! Really enjoyed reading through the Tapestry story...and the image is a beauty.

  1. Maddy

    thanks Siddhartha..
    do visit often..