Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

‘The Conversion of Saul’; tapestry designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 13 feet 10 5/8 inches x 24 feet 6 5/8 inches, circa 1529–1530, probably woven in Brussels before 1563

Everyone who was anyone in the sixteenth-century art world liked Pieter Coecke van Aelst. The skilled artisans who wove tapestries and crafted stained-glass windows eagerly used his designs. The greatest patrons paid happily through the nose for the immense tapestries, eight or nine to a series, in which Coecke and those who executed his designs told biblical and classical stories, put the cardinal vices on parade, or celebrated the victories of great men. Monarchs who hated one another—for example, those bitter lifelong enemies King Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V—were as one in their desire to cover their walls with Coecke’s work, even if they had to wait years to see one of his subtle, elegant designs translated into solid, colorful cloth.

Until the Metropolitan Museum put on its current, magnificent exhibition of Coecke’s work, however, his name was not a household word, even in those households that discuss Renaissance art. “Grand Design” is the third in a great series of shows that have restored tapestry to its proper place in our historical panorama of Renaissance and Baroque art. Deeply learned and dazzlingly accessible, these exhibitions—the first two organized by, and the third inspired by the scholarship of, Thomas Campbell, now the museum’s director—have taught or reminded us to see the tapestry as a central form of Renaissance art.

Campbell and his colleagues have recalled to us how many great artists—Raphael and Rubens, for a start—expended brilliance and energy on tapestry design. They have shown what it took, in material and human terms, to create even one tapestry—a craft whose practitioners would take a month or more to create one vivid half yard out of brilliantly dyed and metal-wrapped threads. And they have made us grasp a period aesthetic of interior design in which too much was nowhere near enough.

The stone or plaster walls of palaces and cathedrals seem appealingly plain nowadays. Half a millennium ago they looked bare and chilly. Kings and bishops saw them as a mere backdrop, destined to be covered and charged with warmth and color by magnificent, sprawling scenes from history and myth, edged with fantastic borders in which hyperactive cherubs dance and play among hyperrealistic plants. To walk through galleries hung with Coecke’s tapestries and those of his contemporaries is to relive what it was like to go from room to room in a Renaissance palace or to proceed down one of the aisles of a Renaissance or Baroque church. It’s like strolling in an immense kaleidoscope, as histories and allegories, expressive faces and exotic plants, angels and animals float by.

“Grand Design” continues this process of aesthetic education. But it does so in a distinctive way, by focusing on a single person—a master who devoted his best talents and energies to tapestries and other collaborative enterprises, and who, for that reason, has never had the fame of the great masters of fresco, portrait, and sculpture. Pieter Coecke (1502–1550) was a skillful and at times imaginative painter. Born in the small Belgian town of Aalst, he arrived at Antwerp, a great center of the arts, at the age of twenty or so, and probably studied as an apprentice with one or more artists. Within five years he married an older painter’s daughter and became a member of the painters’ guild, that of Saint Luke.

This exhibition offers a rich introduction to Coecke’s painting, supported by scholarship that has gradually ascribed more works to him. His panel paintings make skillful use of rich, deeply saturated colors and an impressive range of techniques. Swiftly applied brushstrokes build up the expressive, varied faces of most male characters—especially the caricatured ones of Christ’s tormentors. Women’s faces, by contrast, and that of Jesus are carefully modeled, with smooth flesh tones. Especially impressive is an altarpiece of Christ’s descent from the cross. The interior wings depict Christ’s descent into Limbo and his resurrection, the exterior ones the conversion of Saint Paul, with human and equine bodies painted in grayscale, noble and stark as so many statues. Here as elsewhere, the rich catalog entry and detailed wall captions guide us to see what Coecke himself was looking at and learning from: Giulio Romano’s frescoes in the Sala dei Giganti of the newly built Palazzo Te in Mantua. Giulio gave Coecke models and prototypes that he used for everything from male nudes to the head of Mary Magdalene.

Coecke’s all-seeing eye and unquenchable passion to learn are visible throughout his work as a painter. He started out as an Antwerp Mannerist, fascinated by rich cloth and jeweled caskets. But as he saw and studied the work of Raphael, Marco Antonio Raimondi, and other Italians, he began to emulate their dual passion for correctness of anatomy and decorum of posture.


But it is in the different set of worlds that Coecke made his own—tapestry design, to begin with, but also printmaking, stained glass, and decorative objects—that his work astonishes and thrills. Again and again, “Grand Design” shows us Coecke exploring new areas of craft, his eye always open and his hand always deft. He drew up handsome plans for stained-glass windows. He also designed a Mannerist fantasy of a cup: a nautilus shell, raised on a base for which he offered his potential patron a choice of decorations—lion’s paw, volute, and snail—and supporting a tiny, forceful figure of Neptune with his trident. At times Coecke looks like a less ebullient Flemish counterpart to that preeminent jack-of-all-arts, Benvenuto Cellini.

Most astonishing of all—and most distinctive—is the series of images of the Ottoman world that Coecke’s wife issued as a set of woodblock prints, a paper frieze, in 1553, three years after he died. Twenty years before, in 1533, Coecke had visited Turkey, supposedly as part of an effort to convince the “Great Turk,” Suleiman the Magnificent, to buy Flemish tapestries. No sale was made, according to the Dutch painter and writer Karel van Mander, because Suleiman “did not want figures of people or animals.” But Coecke, van Mander explained, “could not be idle.” So he took advantage of his trip to learn Turkish and to draw what he saw.

Coecke seems to have planned a series of tapestries on themes of travel and Ottoman life. In the end, though, he created images for a block-cutter, who produced the woodcuts that survive. The Metropolitan’s handsome version of these, which is on display, lacks the explanatory texts meant to accompany the prints. But the images—which stretch some fifteen feet—are vivid enough on their own. They begin with travelers on their way to Istanbul through mountains and lowlands, but rapidly move on to scenes of Ottomans living their ordinary lives—eating, praying, defecating—and performing rituals: the new moon festival, a funeral, and a circumcision. Nothing is lost on Coecke, from the wrapping of a turban to the details of buildings.

As a climax, he uses one of his favorite images—a procession—to display Istanbul in all its layered historical complexity. Turbaned horsemen, including Suleiman himself, pass the ruins of the Hippodrome. A caryatid in the right foreground and an obelisk mark the city as ancient. Mosques and minarets in the background show the transformation that has taken place. This brilliant exercise in archaeology and ethnography shows how deeply the ruins of the Christian city interested Coecke. But it also shows that he was just as much captivated by the modern Ottomans he saw and drew, “sitting, squatting, kneeling, riding, lunging forward, and twisting backward,” in the words of the historian Amanda Wunder. Nothing in this revelatory, colorful show reveals Coecke’s powers of observation and invention more vividly than this series of extraordinary black-and-white images.

Still, the vast and dazzling core of “Grand Design” consists of the tapestries that Coecke designed. The creation of every one of these massive, collaborative works was a play in at least five acts. The creator might begin by sketching, roughly and quickly, the figures and groups that would populate the final tapestry. Few of these sketches survive, but one such sheet, now in Amsterdam, is assigned to Coecke here: a quickly drawn image of a wedding group, intended for a series of scenes from the life of Tobias. It is roughly executed. The “granular” outlines of bodies and furniture have a fascinating, distinctive look, half period and half New Yorker cartoon. Coecke catches his figures so delicately that their motions seem barely arrested. Few of these sketches remain, but it seems clear that it took many, many iterations before one of Coecke’s massive panoramas finally took shape.

Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act fell still more sketches. Once the artist had his full plan in mind, he needed to draw the proposed layout of the great scenes he wanted the weavers to realize, in detail but on a small scale. This second kind of sketch, more formal and much fuller than the rest, was designed to show potential patrons, buyers, and makers exactly what he had in mind. Many of Coecke’s petits patrons (small patterns) survive. And no wonder. He clearly took immense pains to construct them, using a fine brush as well as pen and ink and then going over the entire scene with a broader brush as well.


“Small patterns” were presumably meant, in most cases, as temporary art—a basis for discussion and agreement, like the sketches and models of a modern scenic designer. In Coecke’s case, however, they made a splendid, vivid showcase for his special gifts—the lucidity of his compositions, the fluidity and ease of his draftsmanship, and the precision with which he used shadow and highlight to model everything from human faces and figures to natural settings. Like the great cinematographers of the black-and-white era, Coecke used a narrow color scale to express a vast range of effects and emotions. It is never hard to see why patrons and collectors wanted to possess these designs, as well as the tapestries that emerged from them, in their collections of the wonders of art and nature.

Yet even the petit patron marked only a beginning. Pen and brushes can never have been far from Coecke’s hand. Further drawings served as ricordi—memories or records, archival images that recorded the agreement of artist, patron, and workshop about composition, figures, and attitudes. Often rougher and less detailed than the petits patrons, such drawings were also less firmly attached to single makers. Many can be identified only as the product of a particular studio, not an individual artist.

More directly important than these visual documents—though far less commonly preserved—were the grands patrons: the images, also known as cartoons, that tapestry weavers actually followed, outline by outline and color by color, as they worked. Before a design could leave its paper chrysalis and become a tapestry, it had to be reproduced and enlarged on paper at the full scale of the planned tapestry. These large images were what the weavers actually followed as they worked. Like the proof sheets used by Renaissance printers and the sketches made for details of Renaissance palaces, many grands patrons have disappeared. Such eminently practical images, with their indications of line and color, guided the artisans in the shop sometimes for many years after the artist’s death. They were probably disposed of once a given series ceased being manufactured. In any event, many of them were made not by the artists whose designs a tapestry fulfilled, but by specialist cartoon makers.


Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

‘Vertumnus Appears to Pomona in the Guise of a Fruit Picker’ (detail); design based on book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphosis and attributed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1544, woven in Brussels circa 1548–1575

Coecke, however, was a meticulous craftsman who cared deeply about the forms and colors he had chosen for any given tapestry. “Grand Design” wields collateral materials of many kinds to show us how these sprawling, colorful works came into being—and to watch Coecke as he collected ideas and rethought effects. Consider, for example, the powerful series from the 1530s that traces the life of the Apostle Paul. The second of these, Paul’s conversion, does not so much unroll as explode across the whole vast surface of one tapestry (see illustration on page 12). Horses and men, soldiers and angels whirl around the prostrate, imploring figure of the persecutor, suddenly transformed into an apostle. The resurrected Jesus, flanked by angels, dazzles the Romans, as well as the apostle, with his light.

Coecke learned much from Raphael, who had designed a tapestry of the conversion of Paul for Brussels makers a generation before. Raphael helped him imagine Christ appearing in glory and use rearing horses to dramatize the scene. But the wild, centrifugal design that Coecke created, in which men and horses seem to be blown out of the picture, even as calm Roman cavalry muster in the background, was his own. In some cases, antiquarian and ethnographic details, rendered with meticulous care, set Paul’s life into a richly evoked ancient world. Buildings and loggias, townscapes and temples set the scene. Coecke recreated the burning sacrifice that the citizens of Lystra tried to offer Paul, and that repulsed him, with all the zest for detail of an antiquarian bent on recovering the close-grained detail of everyday life in the past.

Yet scholarship was a means, not an end. When Coecke depicted the martyrdom of Saint Paul, he made the setting modern—starting with the castle that bulks large in the background. The artist wanted above all to show the violence that confronted the first Christians and the combination of sorrow, fear, and understanding with which they met. To achieve such effects, he subjected his work to endless revision. For The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, we have both his petit and his grand patron. Comparing them, we see that his great fluency and facility were accompanied by an equally distinctive and powerful drive for revision and improvement. A young, innocent-looking Roman soldier appears in the sketch, pulling a woman by the wrist. In the cartoon he has turned into an older, battered man who has experienced and inflicted much—and he keeps that character in the final tapestry.

“Grand Design” surveys, as fully as a single exhibition can, the immense variety of Coecke’s accomplishments. The formal differences among these works are as striking as their beauty. Coecke illustrated biblical and modern histories, depicting the dense, spiky mass of an army of pikemen as zestfully as the whirling speed and force of a cavalry attack. He could enlist and mobilize armies of symbols. His tapestries of the Seven Deadly Sins, each of which he mounted on a magnificent wagon like those used in his day for pageants and royal entries into cities, mixed biblical and historical characters. These images must have been, for most onlookers, as indecipherable in detail as they were exciting to look at.

Often Coecke played the part of the impresario, orchestrating all choices of line and color. But he also served, late in life, as an assistant to another artist, Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (1500–1559), on a set of tapestries representing the capture of Tunis by Charles V. Vermeyen, a painter favored by the Habsburgs, came with Charles to Tunis in 1535, when the emperor recaptured the city, and made sketches and etchings of what he saw. Proud to a fault, Vermeyen included images of himself sketching in a number of his designs, as well as detailed verbal descriptions of the vantage points from which he had watched.

However, Vermeyen had no experience as a tapestry designer, and he seems to have found it impossible to produce all the sketches needed on the rapid schedule that tapestry making required. Documents show that Coecke took part. Yet they are not absolutely necessary to reveal Coecke’s hand at work in, for example, the wild image of the Spanish soldiers’ Quest for Fodder shown at the Metropolitan. Several individual figures reappear from Coecke’s life of Saint Paul, and even the composition as a whole, with its Turkish horses and men both charging and flying in many directions, seems to echo the wild, apocalyptic Conversion from the same series.

In one respect, perhaps, the exhibition and catalog could have productively gone even farther than they do. In Coecke’s case, as must be clear by now, we learn to see the Renaissance artist as a member of a team. This perspective is not new. Art historians have been teaching us for some time that many of the projects of Raphael and Michelangelo were carried out by many hands. We have learned that Vasari’s rich and fascinating history of Renaissance art was created not only by the painter and writer, but also by a learned philologist, now forgotten except by professionals, named Vincenzo Borghini, and other friends.

In Coecke’s case, however, something deeper is at stake. Historians of technology and science like Pamela Long and Pamela Smith have taught us to see the exciting potentialities of Renaissance workshops, from the houses of printers to those of smiths and apothecaries. They have revealed these shops—as Long argued, appropriating and adapting a phrase from the historian of science Peter Galison—as “trading zones” where skills and practices were swapped. In early modern Europe’s imagined society of orders, those who thought had clean hands, those who worked had dirty ones. But in the printing shop, for example, everyone had to think and everyone had soiled fingers. There the learned could learn about typesetting and proofreading and compositors could learn to prepare texts for the press. The production of art is one province of this larger world.

Coecke was an artisan—a painter without, so far as we know, an extensive formal education. He collaborated, as artisans did, and played second chair when a monarch placed someone else in the first. And he had what Albrecht Dürer thought the artist’s and artisan’s principal gift, the docta manus (learned hand), with its tacit skills at which words could only hint. But he also looked and read as widely as any scholar. Coecke wrote a neat, scholar-like cursive hand. He read Latin more accurately than the otherwise exemplary authors of the exhibition catalog, who make a hash out of too many of his brief, clear Latin captions, and other languages as well. In fact, he produced his own partial translations of the ancient architectural work of Vitruvius and the modern one of Serlio.

In Coecke we meet a Renaissance man—but a Renaissance man of a new kind. Jacob Burckhardt gave us what remains the most luminous and eloquent treatment of such individualist superheroes as Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. Perhaps we now need a twenty-first-century Burckhardt to give us a comparably powerful account of men like Coecke, whose talent lay as much in inspiration and orchestration as in their formidable minds and sensibilities. Men like Coecke contained multitudes—Italian as well as northern ones—and it will take an equally capacious mind to do them justice.

For all the erudition that underpins this exhibition and appears on display in the catalog, much about Coecke and his career remains obscure, starting with the evolution of his religious views. Yet one of his works suggests something of his views on one of the most-debated questions of the Renaissance: the nature of love and the role, in love, of women. Coecke based one series of tapestries on book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the Latin poet depicts the wooing of the goddess Pomona by Vertumnus, god of the changing year.

Energetic and indefatigable, Vertumnus disguises himself again and again with a frantic ingenuity that almost turns into slapstick humor. In the exhibition we see him energetically striding toward Pomona, dressed as a herdsman, a soldier, and a fruit picker (in the series as a whole, he also turns up as a harvester, a farmer, a fisherman, and more). Immured in her garden, dressed in simple, elegant clothing and delicate shoes reminiscent of the Ghirlandaio girls in that greatest of Renaissance fantasies, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Pomona stands her ground. Armed with a curved pruning knife, she responds to his approaches with formal gestures that keep him at a respectful distance.

These encounters take place in enchanted settings: gardens and orchards filled with imaginatively varied loggias and trees, swathed with garlands and swags, illuminated by shining leaves and glistening fruits. Satyrs, serving as caryatids, seem to be brought to life by the power of the god’s wooing. One can spend hours on tracing details, following the gold threads that pick out the details of Pomona’s costume or examining the other inhabitants, from dogs to nymphs, of these magic places.

In this case at least, Coecke achieved something more than observation: he attained prescience. The second half of the sixteenth century, which he did not live to see, became the great age of the Mannerist garden, the locus classicus of late Renaissance grotesquerie, with its fantastic statues, elaborate topiary experiments, and metal flowers that shot water into the faces of those who imprudently bent over to smell them. It would also be the great age of the imaginary garden in tapestry form. By the time Philip II of Spain died in 1598, 40 percent of the tapestries in his collection depicted gardens and landscapes. Coecke did his part to create, not just record, this fashion.

It’s heartwarming to think of Coecke, the consummate craftsman and collaborator, ahead of the cutting edge. But it’s even more so to follow him to the end of his series of Pomona and Vertumnus, as one can in the catalog, though not in the Metropolitan’s sampling. Tiring of his male disguises, so Ovid tells us, Vertumnus pretends to be an old woman. In that form he embraces and kisses Pomona, to whom he also tells a warning story about how unrequited love can kill a young man. When he finds her still unconvinced, he takes on his own, splendid image, which the poet compares to that of the sun at its most brilliant, dispelling clouds.

At last, Vertumnus prepares to use force. But this time he finds it unnecessary. Captivated by his beauty, Pomona finally feels what Ovid calls the “wounds they have inflicted on one another,” and loves him. Like the Metamorphoses as a whole, this story lends itself to many readings—as a witty tale of love’s labor won, after all the tricks fail, by honest self-revelation, or as one of male violence against women: the chaste nymph in her walled garden, finally stripped of all her defenses. Coecke, who knew his Latin, made clear how he read the poet. In the last of Coecke’s tapestries, when Pomona and Vertumnus finally embrace, he applies no force and she shows no reluctance. It’s a glorious marriage of true minds. Somehow it seems right that Coecke, the man who loved to work with others, read this ancient story in that simple, happy way.