Metropolitan Museum of Art
March 12 – June 19, 2002
The last major tapestry exhibit in New York took place in the early 1970s. The 41 tapestries in the present exhibition, on view now in the Met’s Tisch Galleries, were made by networks of cartoonists and tapestry weavers (most of them unknown) from the 1400s to the 1500s. The designs for the most expensive tapestries were usually created by single individuals, among them Raphael and Giulio Romano. Details regarding the entire process are skimpy due to lack of documentation. Even though we can compare the cartoons to the final product in a small number of cases, the identity of the creators of the existing Renaissance and medieval tapestries and why certain subjects were chosen remains a mystery. The tapestry weavers in Brussels kept prefabricated cartoons and patterns in stock and a supply of less expensive wool tapestries depicting popular subjects (which was a safe investment because many of the subjects appearing in Renaissance tapestries also appear in medieval tapestries). The tapestry weavers usually didn’t invent forms from scratch. They interpreted cartoons and traced them. The bigger the tapestry the longer it took to create, and the more silk, silver-and gilt-metal thread that was used, the more expensive it was. One can’t help but be impressed by the way in which the tapestry weavers translated painted and drawn forms using thread and the loom. They figured out ways to create a wide variety of subtle and deep tones, textures, highlights and shadows. They rose up to the challenge that the Renaissance painters set before them. Tapestry weavers had to match the level of technical virtuosity painters, miniaturists and book illustrators had achieved in order to satisfy their customers.
Renaissance tapestries served a number of different purposes. They were symbols of rank, wealth and power and effective sources of propaganda; made to order for the religious and political elite. They could cost as much as a warship and be more expensive than great paintings by acknowledged masters. Michelangelo was paid less money for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel than the designers of a series of tapestries commissioned by Leo X (Acts of the Apostles) were. Tapestries were taken along on campaigns and hung outdoors during festivals, as a way of uniting townspeople around their lord. They were colorful and lively backdrops in dark, dank, cold and windowless interiors. They were not always treated nicely. They had mirrors and paintings placed over them, were rolled up and forgotten for centuries and were burned in order to extract the metallic threads. Entering a room with a series of tapestries hung in it must have been awe inspiring (or at least attention getting); equivalent to the experience of seeing a film in a movie theater for the first time. Even though some of the tapestries in this exhibit might have been kept in storage by the original owners, they were meant to impress the wealthy and the illiterate alike. If you consider the fact that for “99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write,” you get a sense of how impressed people must have been with these intricate and colorful tapestries. Almost every tapestry in the exhibit has a busy border that is filled with complicated designs using putti, flowers, fruit, foliage, heraldic devices and inscriptions. Art historians have used the heraldry to pinpoint chronology.
The most popular subjects for tapestries were taken from historical, biblical and mythological sources. It is nice to see Jesus and an assortment of Pagan gods together in one composition (The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, 1545-1557), although the Pagan gods have been allocated to the borders. The tapestries in this exhibit fall into two groups: those that are either all “surface pattern and ornament”, “visual complexity and decoration” and those that are Italianized, a direct product of Renaissance painting style and concepts of space (of course there are hybrids of the two categories as well). I found myself marveling over meticulously rendered belts and scabbards, braided hair, folded textiles, unique human physiognomies, gorgeous flora and fauna, intricate pieces of jewelry, and animals of all sorts. There is a delicate sense of depth in The Miraculous Draft of Fishes (based on a design by Raphael) even though the tonal richness of Raphael’s cartoon is not perfectly reproduced. This tapestry contains a small number of figures and the foreshortened forms are convincing. The tapestry weavers’ attempt at creating a reflective and rippling body of water and to describe the distant horizon and shoreline is very appealing because we are seduced by the sensuous and abstract quality and texture of the thread when examining the work close up, and seduced all over again when we step back and the take in the whole. The hachures coalesce in a way that is similar to the brushstrokes in an impressionist painting. It is pure pleasure to gaze at the variety of marine life piled up in the boat Jesus is seated in.
The overcrowded and obsessive tapestry, The Death of Troilus, Achilles and Paris, 1475-95, is a clear example of medieval concepts of space and composition. The numerous figures in The Death of Troilus, Achilles and Paris are “arranged in tiers close to the picture plane.” This tapestry is very violent and was part of an immensely popular series of tapestries. Depictions of violence have always been popular. The faces of the dying or murdering soldiers are Holbeinesque and the weavers created an array of flesh tones. Looking beyond the horror vacui, the heavy use of overlap to describe what form is in front of another does not muddle the whole. The viewer is curious about the chaos, the mass of flailing arms and legs and weapons. It is difficult to count the number of figures in this work. They are piled on top of one another and foliage and architectural details are squeezed in between the horses and humans. We see different moments in the narrative included in one image (a two dimensional concept of simultaneity wasn’t invented in the twentieth century). Troilus is in the midst of getting his head chopped off in the top left corner and in the bottom left corner his headless torso is dripping blood into the earth and being dragged by a horse. In an oil painting the painted surfaces are imbued with light and shade. Oil paint is transparent and traces of underpainting can be seen through the top layer of paint. The passages of light and shade in a tapestry are opaque. Transparent thread was not used but it would have been interesting if it was. On close inspection the areas of shading and light (always expressed with thin or thick, long or short, straight or curved lines) are abstract and take on a life of their own, separate from the forms they describe. Some of this might be due to the colors having faded through time.
Although we are used to depictions of violence in films and on cable television, the slaughter of babies and the helpless pleas of their mothers in Massacre of the Innocents is upsetting because the images are static. At least in scary movies we are quickly relieved of our fear and disgust when a scene ends. When looking at this tapestry we cannot escape the images of women clawing at the child murderer’s eyes as he plunges a dagger into her child, or an infant’s head getting pulled back by the hair so that a dagger can be more easily plunged into its throat. The figures and background architecture are streaked with glowing gilt-metal thread. Beauty and violence are perversely joined in this tapestry. The display of animal life in The Unicorn Defends Itself and the weird creatures in Dragon Fighting with a Panther speak of a world in which animals and humans shared the same imaginative space and animals inspired the muse instead of the animal activist. Medieval, biblical and classical symbologies are strangely combined in these tapestries. Animals either pay attention to the doings of human beings, are extensions of humans’ violent impulses (a dog bites into the unicorn’s leg) or are on display as if in an Audubon painting. Nature isn’t part of a dissolving figure and ground, nor is it an outward expression of our inner turmoil. The natural world frames the human drama, is the backdrop for human and animal actions, but remains aloof and pure. In the really busy tapestries nature forms are also employed for no other purpose than to fill empty space.
One can compare the process of creating digital art using pixels with the use of hachures (the use of short lines for shading and denoting surfaces) in the tapestry weaving process. In both, horizontal and vertical grids (real or virtual) are used to make images. Bitmap images are made up of pixels in a grid. Pixels are tiny dots of color that when combined form an image. Tapestry is also a medium that “achieved tonal variation through the intersection of thousands of different hued hachures of color.” The true marvel of these tapestries is the way in which tapestry-weavers invented ways of emulating a number of different painterly effects using this technique. Analog is information presented in a continuous fashion and digital is “data defined in individual steps.” The units of color in a tapestry are discrete or digital, whereas the colors in a painting are continuous or analog. In fact, cartoonists would “cut and paste” figures from one cartoon to another to save time and money. I don’t think photography necessarily strengthened painting but painting did help tapestry weaving achieve a joyous perfection.