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Tapestry in the Renaissance

Art and Magnificence


The Metropolitan Museum of Art

March 12 through June 19, 2002


Detail of "Killing of the Wild Boar (Month of March)" tapestry designed by Bernaert van Orley

Detail of cover illustration of exhibition catalogue showing detail of "The Killing of the Wild Boar (Month of March)" tapestry from the "Hunts of Maximillian" series designed by Bernaert van Orley, woven in Brussels, circa 1531-3, Département des Objets d'Art, Musée du Louvre, Paris

By Carter B. Horsley

In 1964, I visited Madrid and luckily decided to include a visit to the Royal Palace on my short trip where I was awed by its collections of clocks and flabbergasted by its miles upon miles of tapestries, electing, sadly, only to walk through a couple of the twenty miles of tapestries on exhibition. (It is not a small palace!)

Sadly, I have not returned to Madrid, but, happily, some of the tapestries, and a great many others from equally distinguished collections, have come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Met held a very nice and important tapestry show in 1974, but nothing compares with this overwhelming and stupendous exhibition that brings together about 40 of the greatest Renaissance tapestries in the world. Many of the individual tapestries are just part of very large series, and the great catalogue provides superb commentary with many illustrations of other parts of the series shown in their "native settings."

The catalogue is lavishly illustrated and should be acquired by any serious art-lover, but it cannot substitute for awesome experience of viewing these very large tapestries up close because of their wondrous tactile quality, greatly enhanced by the precious gold and silver threads of the weaving, which generally has not worn away too much and have a dazzling appearance as one slowly stalks about in front of these formidable works.

However much the exhibition may impress visitors with the art of tapestries, the exhibition also goes a long way to reposition European Renaissance art in the eyes of those not able to spend many years traveling abroad looking full time at art. The sophisticated traveler, of course, knows that few of the great altarpieces have found their way into American collections, but most of those in fact pale in comparison with the gigantic scale and rich compositions of the great tapestries.

It will be virtually impossible for visitors to not seriously reexamine their notions of the achievements of Renaissance Art and individual arts after this exhibition. That is something of an overstatement, of course, as many of the individual artists who created these tapestries are unknown and many of those who are known are not usually ranked at the top, with the exception of course of Raphael and his famous tapestries, several of which are shown here. The one artist who truly emerges from this exhibition with a profoundly enhanced reputation, at least for many American museum-goers, is Bernaert van Orley, the leading Brussels artist of the day, whose designs for several tapestries on view are quite staggering.

Furthermore, apart from the styles of individual artists, this exhibition will be extremely revealing of the great diversity and boldness of many compositions. Tapestries are not nice rugs with geometric or millefleur designs flung up against the castle's walls for warmth. As evidenced here, they are epic, historic, and monumental treasures that culminate a nation's culture.

In his introduction to the catalogue, Mr. Campbell notes that an inventory of Henry VIII's possessions shortly after his death in 1547 indicated that he had more than 2,700 tapestries, and that "assuming an average length of about 3 meters per panel, a conservative estimate, the tapestries would have measured more than five kilometers if placed end to end....during the years of the Reformation it was in the medium of tapestry rather than painting, or fresco, or engraving that Henry commissioned the figurative works of art that were designed to substantiate his new status as head of the Church of England....partial inventories and purchase documentation demonstrate that tapestry was also the preeminent figurative art form at the courts" of his contemporaries, Francis I, king of France, and Charles V, king of Spain (as Charles I) and Holy Roman Emperor.

"Many of the most important tapestry cycles of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are represented in this exhibition by more than forty examples drawn from collections in Europe and the United States, resulting in what is probably the greatest massing of Renaissance tapestries since the famous summit meetings that took place in western Europe during the 1520s, 1530s and 1540s," observed Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in his foreword to the catalogue.

"It was tapestries like these, in some cases these very tapestries," he continued, "that formed the backdrop to historic events such as the meeting between Francis I and Henry VIII at Guines in 1520 (the meeting of the Field of Cloth of Gold); the coronation of Charles V by Pope Clement VII in Bologna in 1530; the meeting between Francis I and Charles V at Fountainebleau in 1539; and the reception held for Charles V and his son Philip (later Philip II), by Mary of Hungary at the Castle of Binche in 1549. Designed by the finest artists, woven in lavish silk and gold by outstanding craftsmen, and acquired by the wealthiest, most refined connoisseurs and patrons, these magnificent works represent the pinnacle of aesthetic and technical achievements of this remarkable epoch. Almost every tapestry in the exhibition comes from a crown or papal collection. Thus, quite apart from their artistic and material interest, the themes and iconography they embody provide an extraordinary insight into the ambitions and interests of the rulers whose actions played such an important part in the development of modern Europe."

"Leo X's Acts of the Apostles tapestries," Thomas P. Campbell notes in his catalogue introduction, "were reputed to have cost between 1,600 and 2,000 ducats each, so the set of ten must have cost some 16,000 ducats or more (more than five times the amount that, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was paid for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). A large tapestry, five meters high by 8 meters wide, woven in wool alone, with a warp count of approximately five per centimeter, would have taken five weavers some eight months or so to weaver. If finer materials were used, resulting in a higher warp count, it could take twice as long. Production of a set of six 5-by-8-meter tapestries would therefore have necessitated the equivalent of thirty weavers over a period of between eight and sixteen months, excluding the time involved in the design and preparation of the cartoons and the setting up of the looms....Historically, the finest tapestries were only hung for special occasions, but with the passage of time and changing fashions of interior decoration such observances were neglected in number s of collections from the late seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century many of the grandest medieval and Renaissance tapestries ended up as permanent fixtures - hastening the fading of their colors and the deterioration of their silk - often overhung with paintings and mirrors. This happened to many of the finest sets in the British royal collection, which were installed under William III in the royal palaces, where they hung without interruption until they were taken down and presumably destroyed in the mid-nineteenth century. Today, only thirty or so of the tapestries once in Henry VIII's collection survive in the royal collection. Many of Francis I's most valuable tapestries survived until the end of the eighteenth century, only to be burned by the French Directory in 1797 to extract the metallic thread so the debts of the royal wardrobe could be settle. The example of this state-sanctioned vandalism seems to have encouraged an equally pernicious destruction elsewhere. For instance, a number of the finest tapestries in the Vatican collections disappeared during the French subjugation of Rome between 1797 and 1814. Benign neglect and active vandalism have ensured that only a fraction of the great tapestry collections of the medieval and Renaissance eras have survived. The vast majority of tapestries in quotidian use, particularly in more private and intimate settings, were decorative tapestries with schematic foliage designs, known then as verdures and now often described as millefleurs. Featuring repeating patterns of flowers and plants, enlivened with animals and figures in more elaborate pieces, these were easy to produce and thus relatively cheap because the simple forms required less kill on the part of the weavers than complex pictorial designs....The vast majority of medieval and Renaissance production was based on designs that were initiated by weavers and merchants as speculative commissions, intended for sale at annual fairs in centers such as Bruges, Bergen op Zoom, and Antwerp. Quite apart from the susceptibility of classical heroes to a medieval interpretation of their achievements in terms of chivalric ideals, contemporary interest in these figures was further stimulate by humanism spreading to northern Europe, brining with a growing awareness of the classical world. Many dynasties sought to trace their ancestry to such classical heroes of Brutus, Romulus and Remus, and these and other figures became increasingly popular subjects in tapestry design from the 1460 and 1470s. As tapestry historians have long recognized, these fifteeenth- and early sixteenth-century 'classical' narratives were based on medieval romance versions, rather than the original Greek and Latin texts. It was not until the 1520s and 1530s, when northern artists were exposed to the influence of Italianate designs, particularly those of Raphael and Giulio Romano - steeped as they were in classical models available in Rome - that Netherlandish tapestry designs began to attempt to render classical costumes and architecture with any precision."

"Archaeological evidence," Mr. Campbell continued, "demonstrates that tapestry was being woven in pharaonic Egypt at least fifteen hundred years before the modern era. Literary descriptions and vase paintings suggest that it was also widely produced in the classical world, while large numbers of fragmentary tapestries (many made as clothing adornments, but some from larger wall hangings) show the ubiquity of production in the Eastern Mediterranean basin in the early postclassical era. The developing market for tapestry hangings among the European nobility evidently stimulated the establishment of tapestry workshops in several centers outside Paris and Arras during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Inventory descriptions indicate that there may have been workshops producing heraldic tapestries in London in the 1390s and 1390s, and Sigismund, king of Hungary, appears to have taken some Arras weavers back to Budapest with him following his journey through France, Burgundy, and England in 1415-17. Netherlandish weavers are recorded from the late fourteenth century in some of the leading Italian towns, and there was at least one atelier active in Avignon in the 1430s. Few of these workshops seem to have lasted for long or to have grown to any size, however, presumably because they lacked the ingredients that had contributed to the development of the industry in Paris and Arras. A sizable tapestry industry did arise in the Low Countries, however, sustained by a broad spectrum of merchants and independent workshops.In 1448 Philip the Good consigned the production of the costly Gideon set to two Tournai workshops, those of Robert Dary and Jehan (Jean) de l'Ortie.the third of theTournai agents, Pasquier Grenier (fl. 1447-93), is well documented.from the late 1450s he was one of the principal suppliers to the Burgundian court. In 1459 he sold Philip the Good a chamber of tapestries of the Story of AlexanderGrenier also provided the Story of the Trojan War purchased in 1472 by the town and franc of Bruges as a gift for Charles the Bold.A set of Alexander was supplied to the English monarch Edward IV during the late 1460s, while another duplicate may have been among tapestries delivered to the French court. In 1476 Federico da Montefeltro paid Pasquier's son Jean Grenier for an eleven-piece set of the Story of the Trojan War, and another set was sold to the French court before 1494.During the fifteenth century several distinguished workshops also operated in Lille."

"The requirements of tapestry design were in general markedly divergent from those of other figurative media," Mr. Campbell noted, adding that "Tapestry was a large-scale medium, and medieval tapestry designers needed to make the whole surface interesting and decorative, while allowing for the likelihood that the tapestries would be draped around corners and partly obscured by furnishings. Technical difficulty and the cost of labor and materials discouraged medieval patrons and weavers from expecting or attempting the gradations of color available to the artist working in part. From an early date tapestry designers opted instead fro designs that deemphasized ornament, line, pattern, and richness over perspectival or atmospheric effects. The early development of medieval tapestry design is obscured by the paucity of surviving weavings and by the evidently divergent approach to composition by artists and cartoon workshops in different centers. The Angers Apocalyspe, with two-dimensional figures represented in shallow pictures planes and with the emphasis on expressive line within a rhythmic framework of alternating colored grounds, is closely linked to a contemporary style of manuscript design at the French court. They stand in marked contrast to the somewhat haphazard structure of the Nine Worthies (ca. 380-1400; Metropolitan Museum) and the more sophisticated panel of the Story of Jourdain de Blaye The Jourdain de Blaye panel's avoidance of blank space, use of architectural and landscape components to frame and link narrative episodes (and simultaneously to fill and enliven the surface of the tapestry), prediction for decorative and magnificent costumes, and emphasis on narrative and anecdotal detail at the expense of coherent visual structure or representational concerns became staples of tapestry composition during the following century. These components, framed by a narrow strip of sky at the top and by a strip of grass and flowers in the foreground, appear in the Annunciation (ca. 1410-30;.), the Devonshire Hunts (ca. 1430), and the Story of Alexander (ca. 1455-60). From the early fifteen century a sense of depth was introduced to tapestry design by the superposition of foreground over background figures. Throughout the fifteenth century, however, Netherlandish tapestry designers continued to avoid complex perspectival settings, opting instead for frieze-like decorative compositions with episodic narratives spread across the surface of the tapestry. The eye is held to, and moved across, the tapestry by silhouetted forms that appear parallel to the picture plane. Tapestry designers also eschewed the ever more sophisticated atmospheric and chromatic effects achieved by Netherlandish painters during the second quarter of the fifteenth century. They concentrated instead on increasing the intricacy of the surface pattern of the tapestry, whether through costume and textile ornament or landscape and architectural details. During the late 1450s and early 1460s high-quality tapestry design was dominated by such complex pattern and narrative detail that one suspects the cartoonists intentionally created an almost baffling surface. In designs such as Pasquier Grenier's Trojan War or Vengence of Our Lord, the eye is engaged first by a vast jigsaw pattern and begins to discern the narrative only as it explores the lines and shapes of the tapestry. The horror vacui of these designs stood in marked contrast to the more open compositions of the 1440s and 1450s."

"The Annunciation" attributed to an artist in the circle of Andrea Mantegna

"The Annunciation," 5 feet 10 ¾ inches by 3 feet 9 3/8 inches, wool, silk, and silver- and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, woven in Mantua between 1484 and 1519, design attributed to an artist in the circle of Andrea Mantegna, The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, Catalogue No. 9.

One of the few Italian tapestries to have survived from before the 1540s, "The Annunciation," design attributed to an artist in the circle of Andrea Mantegna, shown above, shows, according to the catalogue, "the stylistic and technical divergence between Netherlandish and Italian production at the turn of the sixteenth century." The tapestry measures 5 feet 10 3/4 inches by 3 feet 9 3/8 inches and was woven in Mantua between 1484 and 1519 and is the collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection and is number 9 in this exhibition's catalogue.

It depicts the appearance of the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to tell her she will bear the Son of God. Most Renaissance paintings of this popular subject show the scene has taking place in an interior, but here the angel appears to the Virgin Mary on what appears to be a formal patio with a very detailed landscape in the background and the Virgin Mary is kneeling at a prie-dieu under a loggia. The catalogue notes that the blue diamond marble stones on the patio "are composed of letters that may have a significance as yet unidentified. A pheasant, a symbol of immortality, is between the angel and the Virgin Mary, and the distant hillside is crowned by a temple that the catalogue states is "perhaps an allusion to the Temple of Jerusalem" and two shields with the arms of Francesco II Gonzaga are in the sky and the horizontal scene is surrounded by a trompe l'oeil marble frame. The catalogue notes that the Gonzaga arms may have been added to the tapestry: "While the interiors of the armorials have unquestionably been rewoven, the surface of the tapestry is so abraded and restored that it is impossible to determine whether this reweaving is a historic alteration or the result of a later restoration (the back of the tapestry, which may hold the key, cannot be examined at present because many of the restorations have been made through the lining.)"

Andrea Mantegna, who died in 1506, was one of the great masters of Italian Renaissance painting who employed a rich but simple palette usually highlighted by deep reds and blues, tight and often unusual compositions, and figures whose faces often had a somewhat tortured look with simple delineation. "While the landscape, marble architecture, and trompe l'oeil marble frame are vaguely Mantegnesque," the catalogue observed, "the simple frontal arrangement of the figures, the schematic nature of the architectural elements, and the poorly rendered perspective do not suggest the direct involvement of the master. The assumption that this work was created by a designer working under his influence therefore seems more appropriate."

The catalogue notes "the very Italianate aesthetic of the design, with a sense of spatial awareness that transforms the decorative wall hanging into a woven painting, in marked contrast to the contemporary trend in Netherlandish tapestry design."

This is an interesting tapestry because of the richness of detail and the openness of this classic scene. The hillside is centered and serves as a bridge between the uplifted right arm of the angel and the bent-downwards head of the Virgin in parallel with her hands lifted in prayer. There are a few awkward passages: the domed structure at the left is not depicted with the same degree of perspective depth as the hillside, and the folded back portion of the curtain to the right of the Virgin Mary is rather clumsy and too strong a visual element as is the rather odd cushion on the seat behind her, and the very pronounced circular design of the marble wall in the background behind the Virgin Mary both distracts from and draws attention to the head of the Virgin Mary, a rather unusual artistic decision, and one that also suggests that this design is not directly by Mantegna.

Detail of "The Lamentation" by Cosimè Tura

Detail of "The Lamentation," a 38 1/4-by-81 1/2-inch tapestry dated to 1474, attributed to design by Cosimè Tura, Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano

The exhibition, however, does have a tapestry, Number 8 in the catalogue, "The Lamentation," that bears the unmistakable stamp of a specific well-known painter, albeit one less important than Mantegna, Cosimè Tura (1430-1495). This 38 ¼-by-81 ½-inch tapestry is dated to 1474 and the catalogue maintains that it was woven in the workshop of Rubinetto di Francia in Ferrara. It is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Lugano. "The emotional intensity of the design and the emphasis it places on linear and volumetric representation are in marked contrast to the decorative and patterned emphasis of contemporary Netherlandish production," the catalogue noted, adding that "a near duplicate of this design survives at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The faces of the figures in this tapestry are very much in the style of Tura who tended to paint everyone with the same full lips with rather agonized expression.

In marked contrast to the relatively simplicity of Tura's "Lamentation" is Bernaert van Orley's profusely crowded design for "Nobilitas," number 17 in the catalogue, a 16-foot-4 7/8-inch-by-28-foot-4 ½-inch tapestry woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels circa 1520-5. This impressive tapestry is the eighth in a set of nine known as the Honors and is in the collection of the Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de la Granja de San Ildefonso. "The nine-piece set," the catalogue declared, "is one of the most sumptuous and visually complex group of tapestries produced in Brussels during the sixteenth century, or, indeed, in any period or anywhere. The set embodies an elaborate allegorical program concerning the theological and cardinal virtues that a rule here identified with the Habsburg emperor through insignia and portraits- must practice in order to overcome the hazards of Fate, to achieve Fame, Nobility, and Honor, and to avoid Infamy. The weaving, if not the original conception, of the set was probably commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Charles V as king of Germany and his assumption of the title of Holy Roman Emperor-elect in 1520. The set derives its name from the subject of the fifth tapestry, the Triumph of honor, which was sent to Charles V in 1526 as a sample to encourage him to pay for the whole set.At the time the set was woven it was unquestionably the most ambitious propagandistic exercise in the tapestry medium that had ever been undertaken, an astonishing demonstration of the potential of high-quality Brussels tapestry production by the end of the 1510s. Each of the nine tapestries in the set is conceived as a theatrical tableau, in which the principal allegory is elevated on a stage or pediment in the center of the composition, surrounded by a myriad of figures from religious and literary sources who exemplify that quality or its opposite."

The catalogue's entry for this tapestry is fascinating as it suggests uncertainties about the commission and also that van Orley "may have worked alongside a distinguished group of peers, including [Jan] Gossart [called Mabuse (1478-1532)], [Quentin] Massys, and Vellert.

"Miraculous Draft of Fish" by Raphael
"The Miraculous Draft of Fish," designed in 1516 for the Sistine Chapel by Raphael as part of the "Acts of the Apostles" series, woven in Brussels circa 1545-7, 16 feet 2 7/8 inches by 20 feet, Soprintendenza per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico e Demoentnoantropologico di Brescia, Cremona e Mantova

The exhibition includes some tapestries from the famous set of 10 traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles, which was commissioned by Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici, the second son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) in 1515 to be woven in Brussels from designs by Raphael and first displayed in 1519 in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican. "The Venetian connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel notedthat they were considered one of the finest things of their kind that had ever been made, surpassing the tapestries in Julius II's `anticamera,' those woven for the Gonzaga from designs by Mantegna, and those made for the king of Naples (all long since lost, together with any knowledge of their appearance and origins.) The Acts embodied an iconographic program that was intended to complement the existing decorations in the Sistine Chapel and to celebrate Leo as Christ's representative on earth. Raphael conceived this scheme as a vast woven fresco incorporating lifesize figures acting in fully realized illusionistic settings. Although a number of earlier designs had included modest attempts in this respect, the scale, drama, artistry, and status of Raphael's achievement took tapestry design in a whole new direction. Through the medium of engraved and woven copies, the Acts were among the most effective ambassadors of the Italian High Renaissance style in northern Europe in the second quarter of the sixteenth century, and through their influence on the Netherlandish artists such as Bernaert van Orley and Pieter Coecke van Aelst, they fundamentally altered the subsequent development of Netherlandish tapestry design."

At the time of Leo's succession as Pope, the upper walls of the Sistine Chapel were filled with frescoes depicting the lives of Christ and Moses by such artists as Perugino, Botticelli, Signorelli and Ghirlandaio. "The lower register was decorated with fictive hangings brocaded with the della Rovere arms of Sixtus IV. The latest and most splendid addition was the ceiling frescoes of the Sibyls, Prophets, and scenes of Genesis that Michelangelo had executed at Julius II's behest between 1508 and 1512. The forty-seven tapestries in use in the Sistine Chapel before the arrival of the Acts set are listed in the inventory of 1518. Twenty of these pieces depicted scenes of the Passion, but they were evidently not a unified set. The other twenty-seven tapestries comprised four groups of `diverse histories.' However they were hung, the effect of these heterogeneous elements must have lacked uniformity, in contrast to some of the large commissioned sets that Leo could have encountered during his travels in northern Europe. Raphael (1483-1520) was at the height of his career when Leo commissioned the Sistine Chapel cartoons from him. Summoned to Rome by Julius II in 1508, Raphael was placed in charge of the fresco decorations of the papal apartments in the Vatican, a task that occupied him, along with many other projects, for the remaining twelve years of his life. The Stanza della Segnatura was painted between 1508 and 1512, and it shows the influence of Michelangelo's work in the Sistine Chapel in its later stages. The artist then turned to the Stanza d'Eliodoro (1512-13). Incorporating heroic figures in dramatic movement in the foreground of clearly articulated perspectival spaces, the compositions of the Expulsion of Heliodorus and the Repulse of Attila marked a new physicality and dynamism in Raphael's work. With the completion of this room, he had established himself as one of the leading artists in Rome, and the esteem in which he was held is reflected in the proposal made by Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi, called Bibbiena, papal treasurer under Leo X, that Raphael should marry his niece (an offer that Raphael hesitated to accept, Vasari tells us, because of the possibility that the pope might make him a cardinal). Raphael's stature was enhanced in April, 1514 when, following Bramante's death, Leo appointed him one of the three architects of Saint Peter's. The paint [on the cartoon drawings for the tapestries] appears to have been applied relatively thickly rather than in the more transparent washes that were traditional in Netherlandish production since at least the mid-fifteenth century and that continued to be used throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. This may reflect no more than Raphael's unfamiliarity with the preparation of tapestry cartoons, but it may also have been determined in part by his anticipation of their ultimate destiny. Since it was not unknown for patrons to repurchase the cartoons for particularly important commissions, Raphael and Leo may well have envisaged that these cartoons would return to Rome, where they could have been exhibited in the Sistine Chapel itself (as was the practice in a number of northern churches) or in another venue. Connoisseurs were also collecting cartoons by this date. The tapestries' traditional title, the Acts of the Apostles, is in fact something of a misnomer because they include two events in Peter's life, the Miraculous Draft of Fishes and the Charge to Peter, recorded in the Gospels and pivotal to his appointment as Christ's vicar on earth. In thus celebrating the origins of the papacy, the tapestries paid implied tribute to the present incumbent. Lest anyone miss the point, the overall design incorporated in five of the lower borders a fictive frieze of scenes from Leo's life before his election, and in the side borders an allegorical celebration of his virtù. As such, it is the first extant tapestry design in which the borders illustrate a subsidiary iconography related to the principal theme. The wide lower borders also served the formal function of raising the main scenes to a level where they could be seen and appreciated by a seated congregation."

"Conversion of Saul" by Raphael
Large detail from "The Conversion of Saul" tapestry from a ten-piece set of the Acts of the Apostles" designed by Rapahel, circa 1516, woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst, Brussels, circa 1517-20, 16-feet-2 ½-inches by 17-feet-8 ½-inches, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

"In general," the catalogue continued, "the [Raphael] tapestries have a sober, simplified character that contrasts with the elegance and refinement of Raphael's Stanze frescoes and his paintings at the time. Almost all the protagonists are men, and much of the drama is communicated by expansive rhetorical gestures, in which the individuals point to one another or express their emotions with open mouths and outstretched arms. The argument that this reflects Raphael's attempt to solve the problem of realizing painterly compositions in tapestry is unconvincing; in fact, certain scenes, such as the Conversion of Saul, do embody dramatic action or complex illusionistic effects (for example, the reflections in the water in the Miraculous Draft of Fishes). It seems more probable, therefore, that the monumentality of the designs was calculated to correspond to the simplicity of the tests they illustrate and to their interpretation in terms of what Alberti had defined as the highest form of painting, istoria, or history painting, in which he recommended that the number of actors should be limited as in ancient tragedies. Underlying such a motivation may have been Raphael's wish to ensure the clarity of his images and their emotional impact from a distance, reflecting the concepts of enargeia ("an elevated clarity or vividness of expression") and energeia ("emphasis or force of detailwhich tends towards hyperbole") current in Renaissance rhetoric and poetics."

The catalogue points out that the Brussels weavers made some changes to Raphael's designs and that a few other versions were made, one, for example, for Henry VIII, and another for Francis I, king of France: "Such deviations from the cartoons are relatively minor in comparison with the weavers' fidelity to them as a wholeWriting some years later, Vasari commented: `This work was executed so marvelously, that it arouses astonishment in whoever beholds it, wondering how it could have been possible to weave the hair and beards in such detail, and to give softness to the flesh with mere threads, and it is truly rather a miracle than the work of human art, seeing that in these tapestries are animals, water, and buildings, all made in such a way that they seem to be not woven, but really wrought with the brush.' Standing in front of the tapestries today, we need to remember that their modern appearance is severely compromised by the passage of almost five hundred years. The colors have faded, the metallic thread is tarnished, the silks have lost their sheen, the wool has been abraded, and the uniformity of the surface has been disrupted by generations of repairs. An effort of imagination is required in order to grasp the original impact of these masterpieces of tapestry art."

The catalogue also points out, intriguingly, that while 16 tapestries were initially ordered, only ten were delivered and that their varying dimensions and the light sources indicated by the shadows on the fictive borders suggest they were designed for specific locations in the chapel, which over the years has undergone numerous physical changes.

In its discussion of "The Conversion of Saul," the catalogue notes that it is "remarkable for its depiction of intense action; men and wheeling horses rush toward or away from the fallen figure of Saul in a dynamic composition that was absolutely revolutionary for tapestry at the time.

The "Massacre of the Innocents" tapestry, number 29 in the catalogue, is from a 12-piece set of the "Life of Christ" known as the "Scuola nuova" designed attributed to Giulio Romano, circa 1520-1), woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels circa 1524-31, collection of the Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Romano was one of Raphael's major assistants and this tapestry is quite extraordinary for its dynamic composition, interesting architectural detail, and wonderful treatment of the women's coiffures.

After Raphael, Bernaert van Orley (1488-1541) became a major figure and, the catalogue maintained, "was the first Northern tapestry designer whose work embodied an informed response to the aesthetics of the Italian Renaissance." "Under the influence of the Raphael-school cartoons executed in Brussels between 1516 and 1530, van Orley forged a new tapestry style that combined the multiple narratives and anecdotal and decorative detail of the Netherlandish tradition with the distinctive characteristics of his Italian models. Especially significant among the latter were the relationship of Raphael's lifesize figures to clearly defined perspectival settings and the use of the borders of the tapestry as a frame through which a realistically portrayed moment of heightened physical or emotional drama is viewed," the catalogue maintained.

If Raphael is associated with classic notions of beauty, van Orley is more concerned with realistic depictions of common people as evidenced by his impressive "The Crucifixion," number 33 in the catalogue, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in which every muscle and vein of soldiers seem to pop out and emotionality is rampant.

Detail of "The Crucifixion" by Bernaert van Orley

Detail of "The Crucifixion," designed by Bernaert van Orley, number 33 in the catalogue, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The composition of "The Crucifixion" follows tradition, but van Orley demonstrates that he was capable of highly imaginative and unusual compositions in "Invasion of the French Camp and the Flight of the Women and Civilians," number 36 in the catalogue, from a seven-piece set of the "Battle of Pavia," in the collection of the Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples.

This tapestry panel is 14 feet 5 ½ inches by 26 feet 10 inches and is dated circa 1526-8. The catalogue notes that the set was "one of the most important sets of tapestries that belonged to Emperor Charles V" and commemorates "the great victory of the imperial forces over the French army under the command of King Francis I at Pavia, in Lombardy, on February 24, 1525, which also happened to be Charles V's twenty-fifth birthday."

Detail of "Invasion of the French Camp and the Flight of the Women and Civilians" by Bernaert van Orley

Detail of "Invasion of the French Camp and the Flight of the Women and Civilians," number 36 in the catalogue, from a seven-piece set of the "Battle of Pavia," in the collection of the Museo e Gallerie Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples. This tapestry panel, designed by Bernaert van Orley, is 14 feet 5 ½ inches by 26 feet 10 inches and is dated circa 1526-8

The catalogue provides the following description of this imposing and very dramatic tapestry:

"The tapestry of the Invasion of the French Camp and the Flight of the Women and Civilians takes its subject from the later stages of the battle. From the left the imperial cavalry and the German pikemen attack the rear of the besieging French troops, and a French horseman, identifiable by his white Saint George's cross, is killed. The French are deployed in two trenches, protected by their artillery behind wicker-clad emplacements. The artillery to the left guards their rear, while the other cannons are directed against the walls of Pavia. The imperial cavalry has already invaded the camp and broken through this second time, pursuing the French, who flee onto open ground. The drawbridge is down, allowing the imperial troops, identifiable by their white sashes, to enter the camp. Within the camp the scene is confused as huge explosions among the campaign tents drive mules and soldiers in various directions.In the foreground, treated in a more genre-like manner, is the flight of the French baggage train. Some of the soldiers and women among them a beautiful young woman carrying a fluffy dog escape in confusion through the broken wall and move to the left. The muleteer tries to restrain a mule that bolts to the right, and other people flee in this direction.The tapestries were designed by Bernaert van Orley, court painter to Margaret of Austria and later to Mary of Hungary."

With tapestries of this scale, the experience of viewing them cannot be taken in by a single glance. The immense amount of detail invites viewers to slowly stroll by, step back to look up, approach again and proceed along its long length. The vibrancy of colors in the lower half of this tapestry is remarkable and the pikeman at the lower left center section seems to be advancing outwards from the tapestry and the billowing red swirls of his upper uniform and the billowing blue swirls of his short pants are sensational and yet do not distract from the overall composition as they are balanced by the golden uniform of a standing horseman on the right reining in his steed and the composition is anchored in the center by the quite extraordinary red emanations of the explosions in the camp. The horizon is very near the top of the tapestry and battles are everywhere. The individual figures in the lower half of the tapestry are superbly depicted with great individuality, grace and detail.

While taking a half-hour or so to begin to absorb this masterpiece, the viewer will also discover that large tapestries have a "life" of their own they gently move in and away from the wall, giving it not only a sense of mobility but also accentuating the dazzle of the glistening metallic threads.

Detail of "Departure for the Hunt (Month of March)" by van Orley

Detail from "Departure for the Hunt (Month of March)," part of the 12-piece set known as the "Hunts of Maximillian," designed by Bernaert van Orley, Département des Objets d'Art, Musée du Louvre, Paris

As spectacular as this tapestry is, two others by van Orley, numbers 39 and 40, "Departure for the Hunt (Month of March), a detail of which is shown above, and "The Killing of the Wild Boar (Month of December)," a detail of which is the catalogue's cover illustration and is shown at the top of this article, are even more outstanding and different. The former, shown above, is 14 feet 5 ¼ inches by 24 feet 7 ¼ inches and the latter is 14 feet 5 ¼ inches by 19 feet 10 ¼ inches. Both are part of the 12-piece set of the Hunts of Maximilian and are in the collection of the Département des Objets d'Art, Musée du Louvre in Paris.

The detail of the latter is used as the catalogue's cover illustration.

These are quite magnificent with exquisite architectural and landscape detailing and the dramatic red-costumed central figures as focal points.

Perhaps the most spectacular tapestry in this exhibition is "The Triumph of Lust," a 15-foot-1/4-inch-by-27-foot-3 ½-inch panel from a seven-piece set of the Seven Deadly Sins designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1532-33 and woven in Brussels circa 1542-4. It is in the collection of the Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid. Four tapestries from the set have survived and it is described in the catalogue as "a tour de force of imaginative design, the ensemble has long been recognized as one of Coecke's masterpieces."

Detail from "The Triumph of Lust"Detail from "The Triumph of Lust"

Details from "The Triumph of Lust," a 15-foot-1/4-inch-by-27-foot-3 ½-inch panel from a seven-piece set of the "Seven Deadly Sins" designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1532-33 and woven in Brussels circa 1542-4. It is in the collection of the Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid

The catalogue provides the following description of this panel:

"Lust, represented with wings and a crown of roses (the flower of love), is seated on a triumphal car strewn with blossoms and musical instruments. She admires herself in a mirror (the symbol of vanity and seduction) held in one hand while lifting a golden chalice in the other, an allusion to the `cup of abominations' of the Whore of Babylon in the Apocalypse of Saint John (17:4). The chariot is drawn by a monstrous seven-headed animal that corresponds to the description of the beast in the Apocalypse (13:1-2). Lust's chariot trails the flames of hell in its wake as well as Voluptuousness and Carnal Pleasure, who ensnare `many in kisses and vicious embraces, attracted by transitory desire and mortal delectation.' Within the flames are a variety of monsters inspired by the visionary work of Hieronymus Bosch. Two couples dally in the heart of the fire, blind to the inferno about to engulf them. A woman, possibly a personification of Inconsistancy, runs alongside the chariot gesticulating as the wheels crush those who have fallen prey to the effects of Lust. The chariot is preceded by Venus, mounted on a white horse. She holds a banner depicting a ram (signifying lust) and three magpies (symbols of Vanity, Dissipation, and Robbery). With her right hand, she supports a blindfolded Cupid, who is aiming an arrow at the figures who follow.In the scene's immediate foreground are two male figures, one of whom is readily identifiable as Hercules. Clad in a lion skin, Hercules looks out at the viewer with an expression of anguish as he cradles his club, positioned to suggest a phallus, in both hands. His features are close enough to those in an engraved portrait of the artist Pieter Coecke to suggest that this may be an ironic self-portrait. A winged figure hovering above the cortegerepresents Chastity, awaiting her victory. Beyond the cortege, Apollo can be seen reaching out for Daphne, as she is transformed into a laurel tree to evade his clutches. A large city spreads out in the distance, identifiable from the Colosseum and an aqueduct in Rome the modern Babylon, in the view of many Protestant sympathesizers in Coecke's milieu and in Antwerp."

"Justice Liberating Innocence" by Bronzino

Number 61 in the catalogue is "Justice Liberating Innocence," a 8-foot-1 3/4-inch-by-5-foot-7-inch tapestry, designed by Agnolo Bronzino, early 1546, collection of Depositi Arazzi, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

The exhibition has two tapestries designed by Agnolo Bronzino, Numbers 61, shown above, and 62. The latter is entitled "Joseph is Recognized by His Brothers," and is a 18-foot-2 7/8-inch-by-14-foot-9 1/8-inch tapestry from a 20-piece set of the Story of Joseph designed by Agnolo Bronzino with the collaboration of Raffaellino dal Colle, 1549-50, collection of Depositi Arazzi, Palazzo Pitti, Florence. Woven in the workshops of the Netherlandish masters Jan Rost and Nicolas Karcher from cartoons by Pontormo, Bronzino, and others, this set was commissioned by Duke Cosimo I de' Medici to decorate the Sala dei Duecento in the Palazzo Ducale (known as the Palazzo Vecchio from 1549), the former seat of the Council of the Florentine Republic.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation.

The sumptuous and indispensible catalogue is 600 pages long with 400 illustrations of which 250 are in color. It is published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by the Yale University Press, New Haven and London, is edited by Thomas P. Campbell, associate curator in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts and the supervising curator of the Antonio Ratti Textile Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It has contributions by Maria W. Ainsworth, Rotraud Bauer, Pascal-Francois Bertrand, Iain Buchanan, Elizabeth Cleland, Guy Delmarcel, Nello Forti Grazzini, Maria Hennel-Bernasikowa, Lorraine Karafel, Lucia Meoni, Cecilia Paredes, Hillie Smit, and Andrew Stockhammer and photography by Bruce White. The catalogue is made possible by the Samuel I. Newhouse Foundation Inc., and the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.

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