Epic Tapestries Blow Modern Mind At Metropolitan

The modern mind has tended to balk at art on an epic scale. We simply are not used to it; it is alien to our entire outlook on art and life. Generally speaking, we have preferred the small to the large-the easel picture rather than the mural, the short lyric rather than the lengthy narrative poem. The modern conception of human achievement has been similarly downsized in its moral expectations, undermined by a sense of irony and belatedness. Homer’s Ulysses was, after all, a king who led the Greeks in the struggle of the Trojan War, whereas James Joyce’s modern counterpart is an homme moyen sensuel marooned in plebeian Dublin and haplessly fixated on his wife’s sexual favors. Art on an epic scale requires legendary heroes performing superhuman deeds, but ours has been an age of the antihero. The gods have been supplanted by the likes of Godot.

Whether or not this is one of the reasons why large-scale exhibitions of medieval and Renaissance tapestries have been a rarity for as long as anyone can now remember-well, that’s a question we can only speculate about. What is certain is that the greatest of these tapestries are indeed art on an epic scale, and major exhibitions of them remain a rarity. Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, there hasn’t been an exhibition of such tapestries since the 1974 show devoted to Masterpieces of Tapestry from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century , which, among its 97 tapestries, included two complete Unicorn series, both The Lady with the Unicorn from the Cluny Museum in Paris and The Hunt of the Unicorn from the Cloisters in New York.

Now, with the exhibition the Met has mounted in Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence , the museum has returned to the subject with a somewhat smaller but no less magnificent survey of these rarely seen masterworks. In the art world, it has unfortunately become commonplace to speak of this or that work of art or even entire exhibitions as “magnificent” when we may only mean that we have seen something rather striking or unusually interesting. But on this occasion, it isn’t mere hyperbole for the museum to make a claim for magnificence in the very title of the exhibition. With its 41 tapestries, some of enormous size, from 33 collections in 12 countries, Tapestry in the Renaissance is itself an exhibition on an epic scale.

The focus is on the period 1420-1560 in the Netherlands, Italy and France, when the churches and royal courts of Western Europe were in a position to devote a considerable portion of their great wealth to an art that was deemed to be one of the essential measures of their authority and power. It was rarely, if ever, an art addressed to the masses. It was thus not, in our sense of the term, a public art. As the museum is at some pains to remind us, Renaissance tapestry was “the art form of kings” and their vast retinues of courtiers and dependents. It is only in modern times-and even then infrequently-that, owing to the emergence of the art museum as an institution of public culture, our own democratized societies have been given large-scale access to an art theretofore reserved for what we should now describe as a social and political elite.

With our entry into the very first room of this huge exhibition, we are confronted with a dauntingly unfamiliar spectacle: The Death of Troilus, Achilles and Paris , a late-15th-century tapestry measuring nearly 16 feet in height and 31 feet in width, and depicting a battle scene of almost unimaginable violence and complexity. Woven of wool and silk in the Netherlands circa 1475-1495, it encompasses such a multitude of individual figures, horses, flashing swords, flying banners and inscriptions in French and Latin verse-all embel-lished with brilliant color-that it takes a while even for an assiduous eye to identify the fallen heroes whose tragic fate gives this teeming narrative composition its principal themes. Even by Renaissance standards, The Death of Troilus, Achilles and Paris is an amazing feat of pictorial invention, and it is said to be but one example of what was originally a series of 11 tapestries depicting the story of the Trojan War.

More familiar to us is a single example from the Unicorn tapestries- The Unicorn Defends Itself , from the Met’s own permanent collection. Although the Unicorn tapestries have a certain fairy-tale quality, the series was actually conceived as an allegory of the Passion of Christ, and this one fits into the current Met exhibition quite nicely, as the bulk of the tapestries selected for this show are indeed devoted to religious subjects.

Some of these, too, are of such a size and complexity that they can scarcely be seen in their entirety on a single viewing. When we revisit them, there are always new discoveries to be made. Take, for example, The Triumph of Lust , which exceeds 27 feet in width. It was designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1532-33, and woven in Brussels a decade later. It is so crowded with dramatic action, arcane symbolism, fantastic invention and decorative embellishment that the eye soon despairs at the task of encompassing more than a fraction of its teeming narrative. Basically a tableau of unfettered debauchery set in a more or less pastoral landscape, even the moral of this admonitory composition is not easily fathomed, for most of the many lovers depicted in this overscale picture appear to be having a very good time and not to be especially concerned about the punishments that await them in the next world.

Since this tapestry was part of a series on the Seven Deadly Sins, there can be no doubt about its didactic intention, and its very subject-the eternal conflict between the Vices and the Virtues-was an established convention in Christian art and literature long before the Renaissance. Yet to the modern eye, anyway, the pleasures to be derived from the triumph of lust are certainly given their due in this composition, and one cannot help but further wonder if their depiction on this scale may not have served as a further incitement for some of the sinners to which it was originally addressed. I mean no disrespect in observing that it’s a very entertaining picture.

Moreover, one of the most interesting things about this Tapestry in the Renaissance exhibition is the public’s response. On the first morning that I spent in the exhibition, visitors seemed absolutely transfixed by what they were seeing in the first two or three rooms of the show, and maintained a slow, thoughtful pace through the remainder of its 10 rooms. The study gallery, where visitors can sit down and consult the voluminous catalog of the show, was more crowded than I had ever before seen at the Met. They weren’t just resting, either. They were reading, comparing notes, and clearly in a state of high excitement. It was all new to them, and they were enthusiastic-maybe a little bewildered, too. This was not something they had encountered in Art History 101; it was like nothing they had ever seen before. I felt pretty much the same way myself.

The only downside of the exhibition is that when you leave it and make your way down that long second-floor corridor adorned with a great many familiar 19th-century European paintings and sculptures, everything suddenly looks rather timid and paltry, in size and style as well as subject matter. We are plunged smack back into the unheroic era of bourgeois art, and the sense of loss-the loss of intensity, scale and grandeur-is deeply felt. It was like attempting to read prose after a protracted immersion in the poetry of Dante and Shakespeare.

Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence was organized by Thomas Campbell, associate curator in the Met’s department of European sculpture and decorative arts and supervising curator of its Antonio Ratti Textile Center. Mr. Campbell is also the editor and principal author of the show’s excellent catalog, which runs over 600 pages. Among much else, Tapestry in the Renaissance is an extraordinary curatorial and scholarly achievement, and it’s a show I expect to return to many times before it closes at the Met on June 19.