The War of Troy tapestry

One of the most magnificent examples of medieval tapestry in existence, The War of Troy depicts scenes from the Ancient Greek story of the Trojan War in exquisite detail.

The tapestry was woven in wool and silk in Tournai, in northern France (modern-day Belgium) in the late 15th century. Measuring over four metres high and seven metres long, this incredible object was originally part of a set of 11 hangings known as The Trojan War tapestries which, if displayed together side-by-side, would have measured over 100 metres long. Several sets of The Trojan War tapestries were made and hung in the palaces of the some of the most powerful men in Europe, including Henry VII of England, Charles the Bold of Burgundy and Charles VIII of France. This surviving example is one of the most important medieval tapestries in existence, and is from the only set of medieval tapestries for which the original design still exists.

Large tapestries were an ideal medium for storytelling. Heroic stories were particularly popular with medieval noblemen, who saw the brave characters and their deeds as models for their own behaviour. Densely packed with scenes of soldiers, swords and war horses, The Trojan War tapestries depict a medieval 're-telling' of the epic battle between the Greeks and the Trojans. While the story comes from Greek mythology, the styles of armour, costume and military tactics shown are of the 15th century.

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The War of Troy, tapestry, unknown maker, 1475 –90, Tournai, Belgium. Museum no. 6-1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The ninth tapestry in the original series, The War of Troy tapestry shows three separate events from the middle of the story, which took place after the death of the great warrior Achilles. The scenes are 'read' from left to right – Latin script at the bottom explains the events unfolding. On the left, the Amazon warrior queen Penthesilea promises to help King Priam to defeat the Greek army, which is attacking the great fortified city of Troy. The central battle scene shows the Amazonian warriors joining the Trojan army to push back the attacking Greeks, who press in from the right. It's a gruesome depiction, a tangle of men and women brandish swords and pikes and blood streams from wounded bodies. The third section of the tapestry portrays Achilles' young son Pyrrhus receiving his dead father's armour, with his eyes fixed on his father's winged golden helmet.

Left: Detail showing Queen Penthesilea and King Priam. Right: Detail showing Pyrrhus recieving Achilles' armour, The War of Troy, tapestry, unknown maker, 1475 – 90, Tournai, Belgium. Museum no. 6-1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The War of Troy has been in our collection since 1887. The acquisition was strongly recommended by the prominent designer William Morris and artist Edward Burne-Jones. After seeing it, Burne-Jones wrote to the V&A exclaiming, "I came away with a state of enthusiasm such as I have never felt". The tapestry recently underwent over 4,000 hours of conservation work for display in the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries.

The War of Troy (detail showing central battle scene), tapestry, unknown maker, 1475 –90, Tournai, Belgium. Museum no. 6-1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Other survivals from The Trojan War tapestries are held in collections across the world, including at the Met in New York and The Museum of Fine Art, Boston. The original designs are at the Louvre in Paris.

Background image: The War of Troy, tapestry, unknown maker, 1475 – 90, Tournai, Belgium. Museum no. 6-1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London