A Great Master at the Met

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…

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