Three hundred years ago, the good and the great ate their meals, danced their minuets, and carried out their plots surrounded by tapestries. Splendid hangings, woven by skilled artisans working, inch by inch, to designs drawn up by artists such as Raphael, Rubens, and Van Mander, were a passion—even an obsession—for the monarchs of the Baroque. Kings and prelates proved their virtue and displayed their power, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, not only through the armies that enforced their writs and the buildings, statues, and paintings that embodied their taste, but also through the tapestries that hung all around them.

These defined the theatrical spaces in which great men and women performed the rituals of power. When the processions of the Counter-Reformation Church moved up the Borgo Pio in Rome, they passed between building façades hung with Raphael’s vast series depicting the Acts of the Apostles. When French coronations took place at Reims, the cathedral chapter softened the stone interior of their church by hanging tapestries under its great windows. And when princes, ambassadors, and courtiers mingled in the vast, city-like palaces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they lodged and banqueted in rooms in which tapestries played two roles at once. Complex and absorbing works of art, tapestries delighted owner and onlookers with historical panoramas of courage and justice and entertaining scenes of hunters in the field. Highly practical furnishings, they also hid damp walls, retained the heat of fireplaces, and blocked the gusts of air that found their way through windows. At once a luxury and a necessity, high art and costly craft, tapestries covered, if not the whole world, at least the world of court society.

Thomas P. Campbell—curator of the Metropolitan Museum’s spectacular exhibition “Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor,” as of its luminous predecessor in 2002, “Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence”—makes clear, both in this show and in the catalog that accompanies it, just how much tapestry mattered to early modern Europe’s most lavish patrons of the arts. Kings and officials competed to buy designs from the best artists and import the finest artisans and materials to realize them. Charles I of England, an eager collector who famously lavished money on the high arts of painting and sculpture, spent as much on tapestries as he did on paintings. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the British court owned some two thousand tapestries, while rival royal houses, less extravagant but not less greedy, owned several hundred each. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the minister who turned the government of France under Louis XIV into the smoothest, most efficient version of an absolute state that Europe had ever seen, found it natural to spend time and money reconfiguring the French tapestry workshops at the Hôtel des Gobelins in Paris. For tapestry, as he went on to prove, offered an ideal medium, vast in scale and dramatic in effect, with which to celebrate the glorious achievements of his monarch.

Yet this vital province of the vast continent of Baroque art has been difficult to appreciate, and impossible to survey, until recently. Good tapestries were hard to get and even harder to preserve and maintain. Precious but vulnerable to dirt, damp, and their own weight, they had to be stored with care. State offices charged with their upkeep looked after them and brought out the proper ones for each public occasion. When the age of revolutions smashed the elaborate bureaucratic machinery of the early modern states, interconnected sets of tapestries, each enormous, were pulled from storage and many of them broken up for sale. The world of glowing colors and rich textures they depicted became less familiar even to the well-informed than the frescoed walls that remained accessible to travelers and the Old Master paintings that filled the rooms of historically organized modern museums. It takes a huge investment—in space as well as money and skill—to bring the world that once hung on the walls back to life.

Fortunately, the Metropolitan Museum has once again been able to muster the necessary resources, and the result is another revelation. “Tapestry in the Baroque” presents spectacular and surprising works of art, tells a fascinating story about the development of an art form, and raises difficult questions about the meanings and uses of the arts in court society. In room after room, massive and dramatic images strive for every effect of High Renaissance and Baroque art. As “Tapestry in the Renaissance” made clear, the medium of tapestry captivated and inspired the greatest artists of the High Renaissance. For centuries, the craftsmen of the Low Countries had covered palace walls across Europe with their glowing, busy evocations of mythical heroes and magical gardens.

Around 1500, patrons and artists discovered in this difficult but dynamic medium a way to display the new artistic accomplishments of the High Renaissance. Weavers could set scenes into richly worked frames that helped to produce an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. They could render the dramatic encounters of finely proportioned bodies. And they could tell the stories, ancient and modern, that painters had learned to depict on a grand scale in frescos. Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and their rivals drew and painted cartoons, and the weavers realized their experiments in perspective and foreshortening, anatomy and drama with a skill that made all artistic subjects, from heroic panoramas of battle to quiet scenes from the life of the Savior, seem possible.


The artists of the late sixteenth century and after seized as eagerly as their predecessors had on the special possibilities of the loom. At the start of the Metropolitan exhibition, the viewer encounters an early-seventeenth-century tapestry, probably designed by the Flemish painter and writer Karel van Mander the Elder. Inside a frame of vines and flowers, a turreted country house appears, but off center, at the right. Beside it lies the true subject: one of the Mannerist gardens of the sixteenth century—those paradises of paradox, with their handsome paths and hedge mazes, ornate fountains and mysterious grottoes, and beds of real-looking flowers that squirted water in the face of anyone incautious enough to bend over for a sniff. Seen from an artfully chosen aerial perspective, Van Mander’s garden seems at first an indecipherable puzzle in greens, browns, and blues. But patience is generously rewarded. Slowly figures and stories emerge: gardeners work, elegant men and women talk, and a magnificent fountain, far more elaborate than any real one, plays.

Every detail charms—especially the too-much-is-not-enough fountain, which retells the story of Diana and Actaeon. A heroic nude Diana, crowned with a crescent moon, blows her huntress’s horn; dogs, horses, and wild animals struggle and squirt water; and a strolling couple examine the scene with a mixture of curiosity and erotic tension. Next to them, a real, rather than sculpted, dog squats on the path, extruding a neat brown turd—and provokes the onlooker to think twice about where nature ends and art begins, in the garden and on the hanging.

At the other end of the show, an equally vivid tapestry depicts Louis XIV’s 1664 meeting, very much indoors, with Cardinal Flavio Chigi. The cardinal came to the palace of Fontainebleau to apologize to the King for an incident that had taken place in Rome two summers before, when the Pope’s Corsican guards had besieged the duc de Créani, a servant of the French ambassador, in Palazzo Farnese, and even killed one of the French pages. Jean Lefebvre, who wove this tapestry at the Gobelins workshop from designs by Le Brun and Van der Meulen, evokes a world as magically precise and mysterious as Van Mander’s garden. Lefebvre deftly renders colors and textures: the purple silk of the cardinal’s robes and hat, the velvets and laces worn by King and courtiers, the richly decorated wallpaper and paintings, and the sumptuous hangings of the royal bed.

But the chief glories of this tapestry are the courtiers’ heads, and their adornments. Lefebvre depicts spectacularly curled and powdered wigs, hair in many forms and colors, and the King’s magnificent hat with a deeply textural ingenuity that takes maximum advantage of his medium. At the same time, he offers sharp, effective portraits of the participants, who stand or gesture, listening or whispering, as the cardinal reads his apology to the King. The tapestry is not perfectly accurate: at least one contemporary observer became furious when he noticed that it portrayed a nobleman, unthinkably, with his hat on in the royal presence. But like Van Mander’s garden scene, it shows how vividly tapestry could evoke just about any imaginable subject, from the cheerful business and murmuring waters of a country estate to the hushed formalities of court diplomacy.

The accomplishments of these designers and weavers are, in some ways, even more astonishing than those of the High Renaissance, for the world in which they lived and worked was brusquely shaken by a seismic crisis in the middle and later years of the sixteenth century. In Brussels and Antwerp, Calvinist preachers and crowds demanding the right to practice their religion confronted an administration bent on putting the religious genie back in the bottle. In 1566, Protestant iconoclasts destroyed vast quantities of religious art. Soon the armies of the Netherlands’ Spanish overlord, Philip II, retaliated. Like France, the Low Countries became the setting for one of Europe’s first ideological wars—one that lasted for decades. Shops were looted, looms broken, workmen scattered. For a time it seemed impossible to muster the resources of material and skill that had made it possible, in a more patient age, for highly skilled workmen who could finish no more than a square meter in a month to turn wool and silk thread into vast panoramas.


Artists and artisans coped. The shop in Delft that realized van Mander’s Mannerist garden employed workmen who simply were not skilled enough to create vast, almost uniform blocks of color—but who could carry out his busy, endlessly detailed garden design. Others applied the old skills to new ends and in new places—for example, in a sumptuous red baldachin, or throne canopy, thronged with handsome historical and allegorical figures, made for the rulers of Denmark in 1585–1586, or in a rich table cover woven in Amsterdam, decorated with minutely rendered flowers and vivid vignettes from the story of Joseph and his brothers. Some of these smaller pieces are as charming as the grandest creations on display. Among them are the painterly altar frontal and the magnificent cope, or capelike vestment, thickly populated with dancing angels and dignified patriarchs, designed and woven in Florence in the 1590s for Pope Clement VIII, and the richly colored allegory of Night produced in Munich in 1614, in which flames, emerging from the hand and head of the crone who represents Night, illuminate a handsome, sleeping figure of Day, while an owl broods above him (see illustration on page 60).

Like German film actors and technicians in the 1930s, the tapestry artisans of the Netherlands eventually found new sponsors and adapted their full range of skills to new markets. “Tapestry in the Baroque,” accordingly, illustrates a complex story of cultural transfer. Passing from room to room, the visitor learns of the multiple ways in which new workshops, and new artists, deployed the staggering possibilities of the loom. In late-sixteenth-century France, Henri IV—the one-time Protestant who helped to end the wars of religion when he decided that “Paris is worth a Mass” and converted to Catholicism—reorganized and enlarged the tapestry trade, which had long existed in Paris on a small scale. He did so partly in the simple hope of keeping French money at home, a normal policy in an age when every state and city tried to make itself as independent as possible. Two groups of Flemish weavers set up shop with royal help, one in the Louvre and one in the Faubourg Saint-Marcel, and soon their work reached a very high level of quality. George Carew, the English ambassador to Henri’s court, took note. The “Netherlanders,” he remarked, worked

with such curiousness as every Flemish ell of that tapestry amounteth to sixteen crowns, though it has neither silver nor gold in it; and at that price some cardinals and other princes of Italy cause suites thereof to be made for them.

Conservative at first, the Paris weavers of the Faubourg Saint-Marcel found a market with magnificent but largely decorative work. In The Riding Lesson, part of a series dedicated to the ancient heroine Artemisia,1 widow of Mausolus, cool colors and a starkly rendered, eclectic collection of antiquities—the Colosseum and an obelisk, both from Rome, and a great statue of Hercules and a twisted column from Constantinople—set a heroic stage. In the foreground, Artemisia, impressively dressed and deeply engaged, watches her son King Lygdamis as he learns horsemanship from an older man, whose splendidly plumed horse rears.

At once busy and stately, antiquarian and anachronistic, up-to-date in its ambitious rendering of horses in maneuver and traditional in the stiffness of its images of human bodies, the tapestry celebrates a queen mother—probably in retrospective tribute to Catherine de’ Medici, longtime queen mother of France. Finely worked, elaborately framed, the tapestry is an impressive demonstration of the skills that were now available in France.

Equally decorative—and a little bit less stately—is a second evocation of antiquity from the same French source: Diana and Apollo Slaying the Children of Niobe. To mention Diana, in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century France, was to recall Diane de Poitiers, the beautiful and charming mistress of Henri II, whose death in a joust, in 1559, had helped to cause religious war in France. This evocation of a glamorous and heroic past is here set, even more discreetly than Lygdamis’ riding lesson, in the realm of myth. Following a story retold with great energy by Ovid, the goddess Diana and the god Apollo slaughter the fourteen children, seven boys and seven girls, of Niobe. This mortal woman had unwisely boasted that she was superior to the gods’ mother, Leto, because she had borne so many more children. The frame, with its crouching pages and staring animal heads, fruits and flowers, evokes the world of the hunt, which Henri II and Diane had loved. Inside it, bearded and muscular young men and half-dressed young women cower and flail in decorous, attractive terror. Meanwhile the gods, hovering above the ground in perfectly matched archers’ postures, perforate them with poisoned arrows. Yet Niobe, trying to protect her youngest child, looks strangely dignified—and very distant from Ovid’s description of her, desperately kissing the bloody bodies of her sons. It’s very handsome, but a bit stiff.

It took Peter Paul Rubens to bring the French workshops’ products to startling life. Throughout his career, Rubens engaged in a profound study of the ancient world—especially its material remains—and a complex and fascinating dialogue with the greatest artists of the recent past. Scholarship and art often went together in his work. When charged with the production of spectacular frescoes for the galleries of Marie de’ Medici, he collaborated with his friend Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, a prominent member of that crabbed, erudite, Europe-wide company of antiquarian scholars who copied inscriptions, guessed the uses of ancient vessels, and collected medieval charters in the cold provincial palaces of half a dozen kingdoms. Gems and cameos from the French royal collections inspired Rubens’s vast allegorical frescoes for the gallery,2 which he painted between 1622 and 1655.

Rubens’s paintings also evoked the past, and with great attention to detail, evident as well in the tapestries he designed for the French workshops. Henri IV, as we have seen, converted to Catholicism and then managed to restore order to his kingdom. The ancient Emperor Constantine, as every Catholic knew, had grown up a pagan, though his mother was a Christian. As Constantine fought his brother-in-law Maxentius for mastery in the Roman Empire, he dreamed that the labarum, a Christian symbol, which consisted of a superimposed Chi and Rho, for Christos, appeared to him, with the motto “By this sign you shall conquer,” and duly defeated his enemy in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312. From the fourth century onward, Christian historians portrayed this event as the start of a process that would lead to Constantine’s baptism, the establishment of the Christian Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the construction of the great basilicas. It was a powerful story, freighted with meaning for an age in which an aggressive Catholic Church hoped to win back the Protestant monarchs who might bring their subjects with them.3 To celebrate Constantine, in the years after Henri’s death, was also to celebrate, implicitly, the great convert king.

Rubens’s tapestry design for The Battle of the Milvian Bridge practically leaps from the Met wall (see illustration on page 56). Set inside a frame of curling tendrils and delicate flowers, the wild violence of Maxentius’ defeat disconcerts the viewer. Horses and men tumble, writhing and gesturing in muscular helplessness, from the broken bridge, which Maxentius himself had sabotaged. Caught by his own trap, Maxentius falls to certain death by drowning, still glowering, upside-down and entangled with his twisted, kicking horse. Other men and horses fall after him: at the top of the painting another horseman, poised in horrified contemplation of the fate that awaits him below, his horse’s legs resting on the air, looks like an equestrian statue in free fall, still heroic but about to crash. On the remaining fragment of the bridge, Constantine’s men drive Maxentius’ army back to its destruction. A couple of men hang from the bridge, half naked, muscles clenched, while under the bridge itself others struggle in the water.

Seven meters wide, almost five high, woven of wool, silk, and gilt-metal-wrapped thread, it’s a magnificently weird fusion. Rubens conjured an inventive and disturbing scene from his sources. Reconstructed antiques, like the wolfskin headdress of a Roman priest in Maxentius’ army, and muscular Baroque bodies, human and equine, rendered in almost hallucinatory detail, whirl indecipherably, in a space marked off and given balance by the immobile elegance of the bridge. As the tapestry workshops were reestablished in Brussels, Rubens brought to them the products of his extraordinary spatial and decorative imagination—exhibited at the Met in the magnificent Triumph of the Church over Ignorance and Blindness, in which an allegorical figure of the Church—a stately female figure who holds a glowing monstrance and sits on a vast and ornate chariot—rolls over the enemies of the True Faith, whose crumpled bodies and staring faces energize the stately work.

“Tapestry in the Baroque” takes visitors to many quarters of the seventeenth-century world, from Essex to Helsingfors, and offers them everything from genre scenes of country life and love to allegories on an almost superhuman scale. Nothing takes the breath away more effectively than the work of the French weavers in the last years of the seventeenth century. One particularly spectacular tapestry, five meters by seven in size, as rich with detail as it is mysterious, shows Venus in triumph, riding a magnificent golden barge, adorned with monsters and grotesque faces and crewed by frolicking pink putti, chatty nymphs, and sporting tritons. This complex, even dizzying image was constructed by mixing and matching elements from many sources. The idea of placing Venus on a barge that burns and glitters on the water, as Nello Forti Grazzini points out in the catalog, seems to come from an ancient description of Cleopatra rather than the traditional iconography of Venus.

Noël Coypel drew the cartoons for this and its seven companion pieces, which formed the “Triumphs of the Gods” series, in the 1690s. But as Grazzini and Campbell have cogently argued, Coypel did not invent the basic design. Rather, he adapted it from a now lost “woven prototype conceived in Rome during the High Renaissance by Raphael’s circle”: the Grotesques of Leo X. The boat, in the preserved work, is studded with grotesque heads of the sort that became fashionable in Roman art after Nero’s Golden House was opened up and Imperial Roman decorative conventions began to be understood. This suggests that Giovanni da Udine, “the specialist of grotesques in Raphael’s studio,” painted the original cartoons. If so, then this spectacular work of very late Baroque art, which looks forward in style to the shepherdesses of the eighteenth century, also looks back to High Renaissance art. Moreover, it gives us precious insight into the way that Pope Leo X mobilized pagan imagery to celebrate his role as a peacemaker in the Catholic Church—and, more generally, into the ways in which tapestry designers, through the seventeenth century and after, continued to be engaged with their greatest predecessors.

The printed catalog of “Tapestry in the Baroque” complements the exhibition in more than one respect. In particular, it raises fascinating questions about what tapestries meant in their own time: how buyers and critics—and seventeenth-century France, with its salon culture, nurtured critics by the pride—looked at them, and what they saw. Some of the most expert and creative inhabitants of the world of tapestries—Rubens, for example—described them above all as works of craft, the value of which depended on their materials and workmanship. When dealing, diplomatically, with Dudley Carleton, himself a diplomat as well as a collector, Rubens suggested that his friend, who had rejected a Camillus, might like a Hannibal and Scipio or a Decius Mus (versions of both can be seen at the Metropolitan), only to conclude that “to tell the truth, the choice is arbitrary among these things, which are all without doubt of great excellence”—not the language with which he described his paintings. A month later he glossed his remark:

One evaluates pictures differently from tapestries. The latter are purchased by measure, while the former are valued according to their excellence, their subject, and number of figures.4

Yet when Rubens’s large cartoon for the Battle of the Milvian Bridge reached the French court in fall 1622, Peiresc and a group of courtiers inspected it with minute and critical attention. They approved the meticulous antiquarian scholarship with which Rubens had rendered, for example, the nails in the shoes of the horseman at the top of the work. But their verdict on his straining bodies was more mixed:

We admired an infinity of things, especially the two human figures hanging by their hands. The wounded man holding on with one hand appeared altogether excellent and inimitable, though a few criticized the proportions of his hanging leg; and the other one, who clings with both hands, was found to be superb. But once again a minuscule flaw was discovered: one leg falls lower than the other. We might have wished you had retouched those two legs with your own hand.

Experts examined cartoons as precisely, in other words, as they would have examined oil paintings or frescoes, looking for flaws and virtues. How then did courtiers and connoisseurs look at a finished tapestry, and what—besides gold-wrapped thread and tight weaving—did they look for?

The scholars who prescribed the proper ways to use art at court agreed that paintings and sculptures should be designed, as history itself was, to teach morality, which mattered deeply but could be dull and abstract on its own, in an effective way. By presenting examples of heroic actors in the past, art could help inspire heroic action in the present: “Noble minds,” as Erasmus explained, “are forcefully enkindled by examples of famous men.” And tapestries could serve as well as any other form of art to make such examples concrete and vivid. In 1531 Thomas Elyot put the arras (tapestry) first in a list of the ways to give a heroic example concrete and visible form. Patrons and artists agreed, moreover, that when a particular great man was represented, whether allegorically or historically, directly or implicitly, the point of the portrait or other image was to make the grand person present—and to present him as an embodiment of virtues, visible in countenance, bearing, and gesture.5

Yet over time—as Peter Burke and others have observed—conventions changed. Louis XIV began, in the traditional vein, by identifying himself with an ancient hero, Alexander the Great; with a classical divinity, Apollo; and with the sun. Like medieval and Renaissance monarchs before him, he claimed power not only over his human subjects, but also over the elements, and insisted that he had the divinely granted ability to heal with his touch. Yet the years of Louis’s reign, in the second half of the seventeenth century, witnessed major changes in the representation of the royal majesty. Prominent thinkers like Descartes began to treat the universe not as a vast organism ruled by influences but as an assembly of matter in motion, and to insist that moderns, who could rear such complex and novel theories, had surpassed the ancients, in knowledge if not, perhaps, in taste.

The artists who celebrated Louis’s achievements in paintings and medals—both forms accessible to a large public—never wholly abandoned classical allegories and the invocation of ancient heroes. But they also began to portray Louis in the present, in his own, modern dress, and to celebrate him not as a modern Alexander but simply as a modern, conquering ruler.6

The tapestries made for Louis seem to show a similar development—not only from indirect praise to direct propaganda, but also from a traditional to a modern sensibility. Images of the King besieging cities—and visiting the Gobelins workshops—appear beside the classical gods and ancient heroes. It seems likely that these changes reflect the wider changes that Peter Burke has traced in other forms of art. But that conjecture raises other questions. Did early modern rulers and subjects scrutinize the details of the great woolen tapestries that hung about them, searching like Kremlinologists avant la lettre for the precise changes of subject and emphasis that would indicate a change in royal attitude? Did they really learn from what they saw?

It would be especially wonderful to know what buyers and viewers made of such magnificent esoterica as a series of wool and silk tapestries woven at Beauvais in the years around 1700. Stately, elegant, rich with precisely observed detail, they add up to a utopian panorama of life in the summer palace of the Kangxi emperor of China. Guy-Louis Bernansal and his colleagues envision China as a realm of charm and harmony, where the emperor carries out all the duties of peace with scrupulous fairness, wisely takes time to appreciate the beauties of nature and of music, and drinks his mild tea in moderation—a pastoral realm of good government that could not have been more distant from the Europe where the revocation of the Edict of Nantes sent thousands of French Protestants into bitter exile and the wars of Louis XIV dragged to their even more bitter ending. Did the artists hope to change the attitudes of those who would fence with words and foils before these visions of a richer, nobler East? What did tapestry mean, and how, to those who invested in it so heavily? Like these engrossing images, the questions linger.

This Issue

January 17, 2008