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Introducing #tapestrytuesday

Sarah Mallory, Research Assistant, European Sculpture and Decorative Arts

Posted: Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Bridal Chamber of Herse, from a set of eight tapestries depicting the Story of Mercury and Herse

The Bridal Chamber of Herse, from a set of eight tapestries depicting the Story of Mercury and Herse (detail), ca. 1550. Design attributed to Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona (Italian, active 1540–52). Weaving workshop directed by Willem de Pannemaker (Flemish, active Brussels, 1535–78, died 1581). Flemish. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of George Blumenthal, 1941 (41.190.135)

«A riddle, if you will: What type of artwork did Henry VIII love so much that he owned at least 2,500 examples, and Louis XIV and the Medici family value so immensely that they each established their own production workshops?»

Need a hint? They can be made of wool, silk, and sometimes even gold and silver metal-wrapped threads; their designs were prized objects in artists' workshops; Napoleon asked that his favorite portrait be re-created as one; they are among some of Raphael's most important works; and, William Morris, Peter Paul Rubens, and Francois Boucher all created designs for them. They were, without question, among the most expensive pieces of art produced during the Renaissance.

What are these extraordinarily beautiful and important art objects of which we write? Tapestries, of course!

Surprised? Certainly, since very few tapestries survive, it is difficult for us to imagine how they were once an important and ubiquitous presence in many great churches, royal residences, and noble art collections. That's not to say that tapestries were simply background noise. They were, in fact, centerpieces—dynamic components of exquisite interior spaces. Tapestries covered the walls of grand palaces and cathedrals, they ornamented royal garments and liturgical vestments, and they even depicted contemporary events and controversial ideas. They were made to be gazed upon for indefinite amounts of time as the eye slowly took in the mind-boggling amount of exquisite detail and craftsmanship necessary to create such enormous objects (large tapestries, for example, took years to weave). Made for display, like proud peacocks showing off a dazzling array of colors and precious metals, they were intended to elicit a gasp of astonishment. Tapestries were also created for private devotion, their intricate beauty meant to free the human spirit and allow it to transcend the mortal world.

Tapestries are the product of what we might think of as a modern and collaborative design process, though it began in the fourteenth century (if not earlier). The first step is a designer's sketch, which is then developed into a to-scale painting (known as the cartoon) by several other artists. Weavers then use the cartoon to craft the tapestry, sometimes making their own set of changes to the piece. By the time a tapestry is complete, scores of artists and craftsmen have influenced the appearance of the resulting design. One very important tapestry designer, Pieter Coecke van Aelst (pronounced Peter Cook-uh van Ahhl-st), who lived and worked in Antwerp and Brussels between 1502 and 1550, used this exact process to create some of the world's most astounding tapestries. He was, in a sense, a tapestry designer to the stars, creating monumental, extravagant, and breathtakingly beautiful tapestries for a who's-who of Renaissance Europe, including Henry VIII, Charles V, and Francois Ier. In celebration of his work, the Museum will exhibit twenty rarely seen, royal tapestries in the exhibition Pieter Coecke van Aelst: Tapestry and Design in Renaissance Europe, opening October 7, 2014. This exhibition will not only feature some of Coecke's astounding tapestries and their accompanying drawings and cartoons, but also several of Coecke's paintings and prints.

In anticipation of the exhibition, and to celebrate the Met's incredible collection of European tapestries woven between 1500 and 1900, today we're launching #tapestrytuesday on our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram). Each week we'll feature a different work—some large, some small, representing a variety of functions and possessing a range of intricate details that are ripe for observation. While we know our journey may be full of twists and turns (pun intended), we hope you'll stick with us as we take a closer look at some of the most important works of art ever created.

Comments

  • Marjorie Honeybourne says:

    Glad to see textile embroidery recognised as a fine art on a par with sculpture and painting, etc., which does not appear to be the case today. People should really wake up and take a good look at the wonderful, rich, exciting contemporary embroidery from this country and around the world now.

    Posted: January 9, 2014, 7:11 a.m.

  • Marilyn Rea-Menzies says:

    These are not embroideries Marjorie, they are woven tapestries and tapestry is a weaving process - a wonderful process that has not changed in centuries. But today we are weaving tapestries with contemporary imagery of our own time, but still wonderful works of art. Check out my tapestries on my website: www.tapestry.co.nz www,tapestry.co.nz/blog

    Posted: January 14, 2014, 9:42 p.m.

  • Linda Wallace says:

    Tapestry is not embroidery. Tapestry is weft faced weaving, employing discontinuous wefts to create the imagery. Not embroidery. Weaving.

    Posted: January 14, 2014, 10:45 p.m.

  • Dorothy Clews says:

    Hello Marjorie, you should have read the text more carefully these are not embroideries, but woven tapestries a different process.
    At the same time I congratulate the Museum on initiating such a program and I shall look forward to seeing more tapestries.As a tapestry weaver living in Australia it is wonderful to see these artworks online as the Museum remains just too far away for me to visit

    Posted: January 14, 2014, 10:58 p.m.

  • Jane Deane says:

    Oh, how I wish I was near enough to come and see these fabulous tapestries! Only thing that slightly bothers me, as a weaver who also embroiders, is that these are surely woven tapestries and not embroidery? Perhaps you could clarify this for everyone.

    Posted: January 15, 2014, 9:05 a.m.

  • Sarah Mallory says:

    Thank you for all of your comments - the Metropolitan Museum of Art is excited to be able to engage in a dialogue about the beautiful and often complex art of tapestry. As a result of this very interesting conversation, our next #tapestrytuesday blog post (February 18) will discuss, in greater detail, what makes a tapestry a tapestry. In fact, this tapestry’s designer would be delighted to know this discussion is occurring as he intended certain portions of the piece to imitate the look of embroidery. Following the designer's directive, the weavers used basket weave on the bedspread to imitate embroidery with metal-wrapped threads. The incredible skill displayed by the weavers in recreating the look of embroidery, as well as other materials such as marble, velvet, and silk, is part of what makes this particular tapestry so remarkable and intriguing. Yesterday’s #tapestrytuesday facebook post also features men dressed in robes that appear to be, but are not, embroidered. Pop over for a look: https://www.facebook.com/metmuseum .

    Posted: January 15, 2014, 11:14 a.m.

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About the Author

Sarah Mallory is a research assistant working with Associate Curator Elizabeth Cleland in the Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts.

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