Renaissance tapestry not your thing? Relax. It’s almost nobody’s thing. “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence,” the Met’s ravishing, once-in-a-lifetime exhibition devoted to this art form, should change that. These 41 tapestries made between 1420 and 1560—many not seen for hundreds of years, most not traveled at all, some as big as boats—bring back a time when kings lived like kings, and everyone else had to be content with being their audience. If ever there was an occasion to let your eye revel in something your taste says you shouldn’t like, this is it.
The first tapestry in the exhibition stops you in your tracks, and is an essay in the ins and outs of this opulent art form. The Death of Troilus, Achilles, and Paris, woven between 1475 and 1495, is, at more than 30 feet long and 15 feet high, a whale of a thing, a portable fresco, and as dazzling as it is difficult for the contemporary viewer to actually see. To our eyes, it can seem a jumble of jagged shapes and muted color, a fuzzy Jackson Pollock. Everything is up front, out of kilter, and on the edge of chaos. There is no space, only commotion. Composition dissolves. Outrageous amounts of visual information are packed into every square inch.
As your eye adjusts, however, disorder turns symphonic. Details and figures emerge. Above, on your left, surrounded by a roiling army embroiled in battle, Achilles beheads Troilus. Below, amid a growth of finely enumerated flowers, Troilus’s headless torso is dragged behind Achilles’ horse. In the center, Paris shoots an arrow through Achilles’ famed heel. Elsewhere, Ajax kills Paris. The whole Trojan War passes before our eyes. But so does something else: scads of information, all at the same pitch and in a very narrow tonal range.
Pollock said, “Each age finds its own technique.” Essentially, the Renaissance found medieval tapestries and ran with them. Technique-wise, tapestries may be to painting as harpsichords are to the piano: exquisite hybrids capable of remarkable magic. On a more prosaic level, they’re also like cathode-ray tubes. The horizontal hold is always visible in the warp threads, which distort the picture and twist things in odd ways. Colors are off; the surface swells. Moreover, time has not been kind: Numerous tapestries were burned for the precious metals they contained; many were cut up, destroyed, or used as insulation for vegetable gardens. Even with the ones that remain, insects and mold have ravaged the face of many a masterpiece; gold and silver thread have tarnished. It’s a wonder any survive at all.
In their time, they mirrored the grand style of the Renaissance. Made by many hands over the course of years or decades, tapestries cost enormous fortunes to produce and required immense technical skill. In The Killing of the Wild Boar the attention to the texture of the world is astounding. The grain of a horse’s hide, the fur on a man’s collar, a tunic and its embroidery—all are fantastic encyclopedias of touch. The coat of each breed of dog is rendered differently; every leaf is individually treated. I’ve never seen anything like it.
December, woven in Milan, measures more than 14 by 16 feet and depicts the making of sausages. This unpromising subject turns deeply sensual. In the center, a yummy exchange takes place between a young maiden looking at some very phallic, somewhat tumescent sausage casings, and a young man who eyes her from behind. It’s like some sexy French film where the pretty shopkeeper and the gardener tryst. Adding to the erotic tension, a man blows up a pig bladder as another tends a fire.
Nearby, The Crucifixion and the Lamentation reflects a late Gothic influence and a more pious side. Following traditional Christian symbolism, according to which Christ was crucified at Golgotha (“the place of the skull” in Hebrew), a skull is visible at the base of the cross. The beautiful circular logic is complete: The relic is Adam’s and this is his grave; the Crucifixion is the Atonement for Original Sin. Note how the blood flowing from Christ’s wounds is bright red andorange thread, and how the wood grain of the cross is a stylized paisley pattern.
Also, don’t miss three stunning works commissioned for the Sistine Chapel in 1515 by Pope Leo X, from Raphael, who received more than five times what Michelangelo did for painting the chapel ceiling. In true high Renaissance fashion, each depicts a single dramatic moment: The Conversion of Saul, The Charge to Peter, and The Miraculous Draft of Fishes. By the time you reach the end of this extraordinary exhibition, you may be breathless. But you may also be sad. Gazing at these beauties is like seeing the last of the dinosaurs. Tapestry thrives today, but not at this scale or visual level.
Ravishing or not, these tapestries can still look dated. Then again, all media will one day look dated. As daguerreotypes appear to us, so color photographs will appear to our descendants. Old paintings look old and new ones will, too. We don’t know how this happens, only that it does. Maybe the eye can no longer be surprised or has learned to see something too well. Perhaps the medium is unable to adapt, or just wants to die. The good news is, sleeping media can tell many tales. Better yet, they can rise unexpectedly and live again. For proof, experience the rapture of “Tapestry in the Renaissance” at the Met.