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Kathleen O'Connell

Tapestry Exhibit at the NY Metropolitan Museum of Art

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If you're coming to NYC for a performance and if you have any interest in the visual arts, try to catch the special exhibit of medieval and renaissance tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before it closes on June 19th.

Normally I wouldn't clutter up a ballet-focussed forum with a post on a museum exhibit unless it were specifically dance-related, but this one is really special! First of all, the tapestries themselves are truly magnificent and secondly it's unlikely that a show like this will be assembled again in a long while.

I was unprepared for the sheer scale of these works (some of them must be at least 30 feet wide and 20 feet tall), their overwhelming visual impact (you cannot imagine how crammed with detail some of them are), and the technical perfection with which they were executed (it's hard to believe that they were WOVEN, not painted). Although their colors have faded and the metallic threads woven into them have tarnished, one can still get a sense of just how magnificent a display a room full of them must have made when they were new.

What I hadn't realized before I attended the show was how highly valued tapestries were as an art form during the late middle ages and the renaissance. Owning them was a demonstration of wealth and power, and it appears that every self-respecting monarch (and Pope, apparently) was intent on commissioning a set from the most highly regarded artist of the day. (You had to have an entire set to hang around the throne room -- just one wouldn't do! They were fabulously expensive -- Henry VIII apparently spent as much on one tapestry as he did on a battleship. They also had the advantage of being portable, so they could be moved from palace to palace -- and of course they kept out drafts, which was very practical in a drafty castle.) What I also hadn't realized was that artists that are today famous primiarily for their paintings (e.g., Raphael and Bronzino) were renowned in their own time for their tapesty designs. The tapestries themselves were executed by workshops specializing in their production.

I gather that tapestries are fragile (prone to the ravages of mildew, dust, sunlight, gravity and the like) and that relatively few have survived in good condition. In addition, many were burned in order to extract the precious metals woven into them. (This will break your heart when you see them.)

It's a big show, so you may tire before the end. If youv'e you've got limited time, I recommend focussing on:

1. The first gallery, especially the huge tapestry depicting incidents from the Trojan war.

2. The second half of the second gallery, especially the tapestry depicting "The Mass of St. Gregory."

3. The huge tapestry in the third gallery from a series depicting the virtues of kings (in this case, "nobilitas," with a eclectic mix of figures from the Old Testament, Greek and Roman history and mythology, and European history).

4. The three tapestries by Raphael in the fourth gallery.

5. ALL of the tapestries by the greatest artist you've never heard of, Berneart van Orley (I may have mispelled his name) in the fifth gallery.

6. St Michael Overcoming Satan and Dragon Fighting with Panther in (I think) the seventh gallery -- note the fabulously worked detail in the lower right section of the former; the latter still retains some of the precious metal luster it must have had when new.

7. The throne baldechin (spelling?) in the last gallery. Because this piece wasn't used much, it is in near perfect condition and you can get some sense of how lustrous these works were when new.

(As you can see, I've been more than once!)

FYI, the MMA is open late (unitl 8:45) on Friday and Saturday evenings, so there's time to make a pre-performance visit (or to drop by after a matinee)! Spring for the audio guide rental, whihc you can also use elsewhere in the museum.

Here's the web page for the exhibit:


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Thanks very much. No need to be apologetic for "the clutter" -- posts like yours are what the "Other Arts" forum is for!

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