This catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum’s splendid exhibiti on Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence (March 12 – June 19, 2002) presents a major study of a spectacular and important medium. Tapestries – enormous in size, opulent in materials, and lofty in subject – were the major form of figural art in the Renaissance courts, yet scholars have paid far less attention to them than to paintings of the period, and they have remained relatively unfamiliar outside of specialist studies. Tapestries in the Renaissance participates in a new scholarly concern for these late medieval and Renaissance art forms (akin to other recent exhibitions, notably the Met’s own Luminous Image show of Netherlandish glass roundels in 1995 and the Getty’s Painting on Light exhibition of German and Swiss stained glass in 2000). By examining the highest quality weavings in scholarly essays and catalogue entries, Tapestries in the Renaissance makes a vital contribution to Renaissance studies and will undoubtedly help attract broader attention to these works of art. The College Art Association recognized the show’s achievement by awarding Thomas P. Campbell, the exhibition’s organizer and the chief author of the catalogue, with the 2003 Alfred H. Barr, Jr., Award for Museum Scholarship.
Tapestry in the Renaissance examines the medium’s cultural context and stylistic development from the late medieval period to the High Renaissance, in both Northern Europe and in Italy. Campbell’s catalogue relates tapestries to their patrons’ lifestyles, tastes, and aspirations, demonstrating, for instance, how these works’ special qualities – their heroic themes, huge scale, and extravagant cost – were particularly suitable to project messages about power and magnificence, both secular and ecclesiastical. (We remember that Raphael’s tapestry designs for the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Leo X, complemented Michelangelo’s grandiose frescoes.) The roles of key designers who developed and transformed the medium are also closely studied, including Raphael and Bernard van Orley; later, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Jan Vermeyen, and Michiel Coxcie, among others. Finally, the catalogue defines the physical and technical circumstances under which these complex works of art were commissioned and produced.
Throughout, the catalogue meticulously summarizes a vast amount of previous scholarship and presents many new arguments and insights. For instance, Campbell proposes to expand Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s oeuvre. During the 1530s, Coecke was a leading tapestry designer and the director of an important painting workshop in Antwerp, but his later artistic activity has virtually vanished from our view (he died in 1550). Campbell proposes that a number of tapestry designs, already tentatively associated with Coecke, represent the artist’s late work, arguing that tapestry design continued to occupy him at the height of his career.
Far from being a narrow, specialized study, Campbell’s book sheds light on larger issues of Renaissance art history, such as the interrelations between the North and Italy, as well as the nature of collaboration and workshop practice. Since many of the major Renaissance painters devoted energies to tapestry design, our understanding of this art form clarifies our view of the period as a whole. Moreover, tapestries incorporate a wealth of Renaissance imagery. For instance, very few early Netherlandish paintings survive to show secular, classical, or Old Testament subjects, although there is evidence that more of these works did once exist. Tapestries – produced in the same years as, say, the devotional paintings of Rogier van der Weyden or Hans Memling – provide these ‘rare’ themes in abundance. Tapestry in the Renaissanceincludes numerous allegories (such as the Met’s lovely panel of the Unicorn defends itself, from the well-known set woven in the Netherlands c.1495-1505), contemporary and historical battle scenes, Old Testament stories and heroes, and classical subjects. These woven panels may shed light on the lost secular scenes rendered in paint (notably the lost van der Weyden Herkinbald murals); moreover, we can speculate about how certain types of subjects held special associations with specific media.
The exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum was a majestic survey of tapestry design, displaying more than forty tapestries, nineteen drawings and cartoon fragments, and two prints. Visitors to the Met were lucky enough to experience the sheer beauty of tapestry under optimal conditions. For readers of the catalogue, the excellent color illustrations hint at the amazing effects achieved by the sparkling threads of gold, silver, and silk woven into these most luxurious and costly images of the Renaissance. In its presentation of both scholarly and visual evidence, Tapestry in the Renaissance makes a most compelling case for the medium’s mainstream importance in the history of art.