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Following the warp and weft of time: Tapestries in all their glory at the Met

Tapestry is as alluring a medium to today’s artists as Renaissance ones

There is now little contention that, historically, tapestries were among the most prized of media. In 2002, the exhibition “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, organised by the institution’s now-director Thomas Campbell, reminded both the museum-going public and the more scholarly audience that it was tapestries that demonstrated wealth and power.

Vast sums were spent on commissions by the most lavish patrons of the day, from the Burgundian dukes and their Habsburg descendants, to the papacy. Famously, Henry VIII chose to spend as much on one set of tapestries (the gold-woven Story of David and Bathsheba, around 1526-28) as on a fully equipped man-of-war.

For Campbell’s second Met show, “Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendour” in 2007, even the Met’s spacious exhibition halls were almost overwhelmed by the physical grandeur of the huge hangings.

But what of their artistic merit? A third exhibition, “Pieter Coecke van Aelst: Tapestry and Design in Renaissance Europe”, opening this October at the Met, will tackle precisely that. Documentary evidence reveals that Coecke was phenomenally productive. Though a great painter, he spent much of his time designing across media, handing his drawings over to other craftsmen to implement. Like his contemporary Michiel Coxcie, like Raphael and Giulio Romano, Coecke was not simply a tapestry specialist; instead, he recognised tapestry as a great conduit for his skills.

From his early Life of Saint Paul, around 1530-40, which elegantly and intelligently reacted to innovations from Italy, to the later Story of Creation series, after 1540, Coecke’s designs relished tapestry’s scale and potential drama. Playing with perspective and spatial illusion, Coecke brought his life-size figures to the very front of the picture plane, having them step onto borders with an outstretched arm, or a pile of burning books set to tumble out of the tapestry altogether.

In his superlative Seven Deadly Sins, around 1542-44, Coecke cast off the packed allegorical stage sets typical of his predecessors in favour of a thinned-down cast of distinctive protagonists set in airy landscapes.

Though Coecke’s design concept shaped each series, and for some he also participated in the cartoon-painting, he played no role in the physical creation of the tapestries. The great Brussels tapestry weavers translated his designs into wools, silks and precious metal-wrapped threads, directed by masters who, in contemporary documents, shared equal billing with the designer: Willem de Pannemaker, Willem de Kempeneer, Frans Ghieteels, for example.

Displaying side by side Coecke’s preliminary drawings, fragmentary full-scale cartoons, and the tapestries themselves, the exhibition will present the core three stages in the creation of a tapestry. In a way that has not been applied to textile arts before, it will address the transmission of design across scale and media, collaboration, and reproduction in replica tapestry editions.

While the Bauhaus and its followers embraced the concept of the lone designer-weaver, the historical tradition of the artist’s cartoon as distinct from the weaving process, also continues. Take the machine-woven, 15-metre-long The Walthamstow Tapestry, 2009, designed by Grayson Perry. Who is to say whether Coecke—champion of the printed medium—would adore or abhor the notion of computer-controlled looms?

Certainly when Coecke was working, the raw materials, the number of artisanal hands involved and the sheer logistics of weaving rendered a tapestry many times more expensive, and more valued, than a comparable painting by the same artist.

Coming full circle, nowadays a machine-woven tapestry is significantly cheaper than an autograph work by its designer, the affordable way to own “a Chuck Close” or “a Peter Blake”.

But the aesthetic appeal of tapestry design for contemporary greats, just as for Coecke and the designer-artists of the Renaissance before them, lies in the textile end result. Artists witness the fruits of their imagination converted, multiple times, into a scale, texture and pliability, and a material sumptuousness, that is simply not feasible in any other medium, not even fresco or stained glass.

In an art scene nearly unrecognisable in so many ways from its 16th-century precedent, tapestries continue to allow monumental narrative to unwind like nothing else.

• Elizabeth Cleland is the associate curator of the department of European sculpture and Decorative Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Following the warp and weft of time'