The Tapestries Are Back!

It was a no-brainer that Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, would be a critical and popular success. The crowds at the Met are stunned as they encounter one gargantuan tapestry after another. Even those dismissive of history’s glories—say, theory-addled denizens of the contemporary art scene—have to admit that Threads of Splendor is, well, something.

Lightning has struck twice for those us who visited the Met’s Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence in 2002, partly on the presumption that it was a once-in-a-lifetime endeavor. If anything, Threads of Splendor is the grander of the two; certainly, it’s more spectacular in presentation and surer on its feet as a scholarly extravaganza. It’s showtime at the Met.

Gathering together 45 weavings dating from 1590 to 1720, curator Thomas P. Campbell is set on correcting an historical oversight: The relative lack of mention tapestries receive in the standard narrative of art history.

Seeking to counterbalance what he calls a “myopic vision of the past,” Mr. Campbell places the medium firmly within a cultural and political context, detailing, for example, the devastating effect the Dutch civil war had on the industry. He emphasizes the role tapestries played for royalty: The British Crown once claimed over 2,000 of them. Tapestries were prestige items.

Flemish tapestries occupy a little more than half of Threads of Splendor—an indication of the central role the Low Countries played in their manufacture and distribution. (Other examples come from France, Britain and Italy.) Brussels, in particular, gained considerable renown for the quality of the tapestries originating from its workshops. Florentine Ambassador Ludovico Guicciardini noted that the industry was Brussels’ most profitable commercial enterprise. This was, Mr. Campbell notes with understatement, “no cottage industry.”

Peter Paul Rubens (and, to a lesser extent, Raphael) is the big name ushered in to bolster the place of tapestries in art history. A handful of Rubens’ modellos and mozzettos (studies for larger works) are included, and offer an exemplary opportunity to examine how a loose-limbed painterly style translated into what was essentially a secondhand medium.

Less given to immediacy, subtleties in surface, and luminous color, weavers had to approximate the master’s touch to the best of their considerable ability. Their version of Rubens’ The Triumph of the Church Over Ignorance and Blindness, based upon two modestly scaled oil-on-panel studies, measures a whopping 16 by 24 feet—a dumbfounding facsimile, given the craft’s labor-intensive nature.

Even the most adept weaver could produce only one square yard of tapestry a month. Mr. Campbell figures that it would take four weavers anywhere from six months to a year and a half to complete a 12-by-24-foot tapestry. Guild members set stringent standards, and apprenticeships were rigorous. Top-notch tapestries, which could be made from silk, silver and gold, were geared, as you might imagine, to the wealthy. Low-end product was peddled at fairs mounted in port towns.

Subjects ranged from religious narratives, mythological tales and the roiling drama of naval battles, to life in the country. Maidservant With a Basket of Fruit (ca. 1635), designed by the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens and his workshop, is an anecdotal delight. Framed by a ridiculously ornate bit of architecture, a life-size, muscle-bound woman holds a fruit basket; behind her, bathed in an eerie brownish light, are two lovers. Elsewhere you’ll find a parrot and a hunter’s bounty. Depending on your mood, you’ll be inclined to deem it the show’s finest work. Best to revisit this twice-in-a-lifetime exhibition to test your conclusion, and take further pleasure in its magnificence.

Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, until Jan. 6.

The Tapestries Are Back!