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Exhibitions/ Grand Design

Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry

At The Met Fifth Avenue
October 8, 2014–January 11, 2015

Exhibition Overview

This international loan exhibition explores the achievements of the great northern Renaissance master Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550). As the impressive body of his surviving drawings makes clear, Coecke was a master designer, devising projects across media, from tapestry series, to panel paintings, prints, stained glass, and goldsmith's work. The exhibition unites nineteen of the grand tapestries he designed, woven in the great workshops of Brussels for collectors from Emperor Charles V, France's François Ier, and Henry VIII of England, to Cosimo de Medici, juxtaposed with a selection of his panel paintings, including a monumental triptych, and more than thirty drawings and prints. Coecke was also the translator and editor of influential Italian architectural treatises that are included in the exhibition. In the midst of this productivity, Coecke also traveled extensively, and among the exhibits is the fascinating woodcut frieze he designed, over fourteen feet in length, recording his experiences in Constantinople.

Accompanied by an Audio Guide

Related Installation

This exhibition is complemented by the installation Examining Opulence: A Set of Renaissance Tapestry Cushions (August 4, 2014–January 18, 2015).

Featured Media


"Thread by thread, he made tapestries breathe with a brilliant new life."—New York Times

"Stupefying"—The New Yorker

The exhibition is made possible by the Siebold Stichting Foundation and Fukushima Medical University.

Siebold | Stichting / FoundationFukushima Medical University

Additional support is provided by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and The Hochberg Foundation Trust.

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in

Exhibition Objects

Around 1529, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, then just twenty-seven years old, made what was probably his first independent leap into tapestry design with the Story of Saint Paul series. The series apparently established him as a premier tapestry designer.

The series originally consisted of seven separate tapestry panels, each one depicting a scene from the life of Saint Paul. Later, probably at the request of King Henry VIII, Coecke augmented the series by creating designs for two more episodes. Five different tapestries from the Saint Paul series are on display in Grand Design. Also on display are Coecke's sketches and drawings for the Saint Paul tapestries' designs, and several fragments of Saint Paul tapestry cartoons (the template from which weavers wove the tapestry).

While Coecke had previously worked on tapestry projects—most likely subcontracted to the influential artist and designer Bernard van Orley—the Saint Paul series almost certainly represents his first solo foray into the design and creation of monumental tapestries, and was among Coecke's most popular designs. Over the course of the next century, innumerable sets of the Saint Paul series were woven, and many survive today. These panels contain an abundance of intricately woven details fashioned from vibrantly colored silk and woolen threads, many also including silver- and gold-wrapped threads.

Selected Artworks

After Pieter Coecke van Aelst's spectacular achievement with the Life of Saint Paul, his next surviving tapestry series is the seven-piece Seven Deadly Sins (designed around 1532–1534), of which at least five sets were woven. Coecke's authorship of these designs was acknowledged in a contemporary manuscript (on display in the exhibition) that describes these tapestries "of which master Pieter van Aelst, painter of Antwerp, made the designs and compositions." This, combined with Coecke's stylistic characteristics in the series, renders it one of the few securely attributed works in his oeuvre.

In the midst of designing this series, Coecke traveled, via Italy, to Constantinople. While still maintaining his own energetic, expressive style, this series evidences Coecke's interest in the work of Italian artists. As has sometimes been noted, the general composition of the Sins seems to give a nod to Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni's recently completed Deeds and Triumphs of Scipio tapestries.

Each panel depicts the personification of a sin riding in a chariot, surrounded by biblical or historical figures guilty of said sin. When a set of the tapestries was displayed hanging side by side, according to the written program, this inglorious parade would seem to advance around the room, creating the effect of a wonderful circular procession from Pride through Avarice, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, and Anger to Sloth, and back to Pride. Included in this exhibition are Pride, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth. Also on display is a manuscript from about 1534 with the descriptive text outlining what should be represented on the tapestries and Coecke's only surviving preparatory drawing for the series.

Selected Artworks

Following his travels through Constantinople, Pieter Coecke van Aelst designed several sets of tapestries that depicted exemplary heroes from history, with whom contemporary rulers, from Henry VIII to Charles V, endeavored to identify: the Old Testament patriarch Abraham, the Israelite military commander Joshua, and the Roman emperor Julius Caesar.

Coecke's designs for the Joshua series of tapestries encompass key moments in the life of Joshua. On display in the exhibition are Jehovah Orders Joshua to Cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, The Fall of Jericho and Sparing of Rahab, and The Gibeonite Deception. Also on display are three drawings related to Coecke's designs for the Joshua tapestries. Although the Story of Joshua survives in only one set (in the collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum), at least three were woven (and acquired by Francis I, Charles V, and Henry VIII). While the surviving set has eight panels, some evidence indicates that Henry VIII's set had ten panels. Coecke had previously added additional panels to other tapestry designs, such as the Story of Saint Paul, at the request of a patron.

Coecke's innovative compositional style and creative use of space is apparent in his designs for the Joshua tapestries. He plays with the viewer's perspective to craft intimate vignettes within grand vistas. The figure of Joshua, dressed all'antica in a plumed helmet, a cuirass with lion-mask epaulettes, and, on his feet, caligae, appears in dramatic poses in the foregrounds of the compositions, his movements acting out key moments in his story. Behind him, pouring out of the horizon, are vast landscapes filled with thousands of marching troops undulating across each panel, their actions depicting another aspect of the same story mimed by Joshua. The layering of stories and various spatial devices to create energetic, naturalistic, and legible designs is a hallmark of Coecke's work.

Selected Artworks

Sometime around December 1543, Henry VIII acquired a set of ten lavishly woven tapestries depicting scenes from the life of Old Testament patriarch Abraham. The design for this series of tapestries was mostly likely begun by Bernard van Orley, but ultimately completed by Coecke around 1537. These tapestries remain in the British Royal Collection and are still on display today at Hampton Court Palace.

The tapestry depicts the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, high priest and king of Salem. An inscription in the border of the tapestry describes the scene: "Sodom having been stormed, Lot is taken prisoner. Abraham recovers him. King Melchizedek offers bread and wine to the victor, Abraham." Rarely seen outside England, this tapestry appears in the exhibition by the permission of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Woven with copious amounts of gold- and silver-wrapped threads, this extraordinarily costly tapestry measures just over 25 feet in length and 15 feet in height.

Selected Artwork

Pieter Coecke van Aelst, like many artists during the Renaissance, found inspiration for his designs in the myths recorded in the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses. Around 1544, he referenced Ovid's work when he designed a nine-piece set of large tapestries depicting the story of Vertumnus (Roman God of the Seasons) and Pomona (Goddess of fruit trees and gardens). Vertumnus, in pursuit of the disinterested Pomona, disguises himself first as a harvester, then as a farmer, a herdsman, a vintner, a fruit picker, a soldier, a fisherman, and an old woman. Ultimately, Vertumnus wins Pomona's heart.

Coecke's Vertumnus and Pomona tapestries were extremely popular and rewoven many times. Combining lush garden scenes with classical architecture, Coecke's tapestry designs produced trend-setting pieces that appealed to the sensibilities of the most fashionable of collectors. The following images reveal some of the exquisitely woven details from the Story of Vertunmus and Pomona: Vertumnus in the Guise of a Herdsman.

Selected Artworks

Pieter Coecke van Aelst's startling productivity came to a shocking end in 1550 when he died from unidentified causes. In the decade preceding his death, however, Coecke produced some of his most well-known works, including several translations of Sebastiano Serlio's architectural treatises on Italian architecture. The tapestries he designed between 1545 and 1550 reflect close attention to alternating architectural and landscape settings. Examples from this period on display in the exhibition include tapestries from the Story of the Creation, the Conquest of Tunis, and the Poesia series.

Designed around 1546, the Conquest of Tunis tapestry series depicts the exploits of a young Charles V as he recaptured the city of Tunis from the Turks. Charles's journey occurred in 1535, some ten years before the design of these tapestries. Coecke was not the chief designer of these tapestries. Rather, he worked with artist Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (1500–1559) to complete the cartoons for the tapestries, including The Quest for Fodder tapestry, which, at 17 feet tall and 30 feet long, is the largest tapestry on display in the exhibition. A caption in the border of the tapestry describes the scene:

After the need arose for victuals for the horses, the marquis Alarcón went out for them, and so many Moors charged upon him that he had to be assisted and the emperor went to his aid with some men on horse and on foot. Another day the duke of Alba goes out with a larger number of people and brings abundant provisions. Just as he returns, the Turks make a noon sortie from Goletta against the Spanish and other soldiers who are manning the defenses, a great skirmish breaks out, and the Turks retreat with some losses inside Goletta, while our soldiers arrive to fight their way over its defenses upon withdrawing from which, the ground being wide and without cover, they are done much harm by the enemy harquebusiers and artillery.

In another instance of Coecke's awareness of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the Poesia series depicts various tales from classical mythology. Designed around 1547–1548, only one set of these tapestries was ever woven. The set was acquired by King Phillip II of Spain in 1556. The panel on display in the exhibition depicts the god Apollo preparing to flay Marsyas.

The Story of the Creation, designed around 1548, was acquired by Cosimo I de' Medici and Eleonora di Toledo and was one of their most prized tapestry sets. The tapestry on display in the exhibition depicts the outcome of the Original Sin. In the center of the tapestry, God emerges around the trunk of a tree as Eve covers her bosom and Adam blames her for their misdeeds. A blue-and-red serpent slithers down trunk of a tree, presumably the same tree from which Eve picked the forbidden apple. In the background on the right side of the tapestry, God grasps the tunics of the newly clothed Adam and Eve. Once again, Coecke layers two aspects of the same story into one legible design.

Selected Artworks

Detail of Eve, from God Accuses Adam and Eve after the Fall tapestry in a set of The Story of Creation. Design attributed to Pieter Coecke van Aelst, ca. 1548. Woven under the direction of Jan de Kempeneer and Frans Ghieteels, Brussels, completed by 1551. Wool, silk, and silver- and silver-gilt-wrapped threads. Florence Instituti Museale della Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale Fiorentino (Arazzi 1912–25, 17). Photograph by Bruce White