At its best, tapestry is a mesmerizing art form, but it's an aspect of art history that has been largely overlooked by scholars. If you pick up any standard history of European arts, it's all about painters, sculptors, and architects. This exclusion of tapestries from the narrative of art history, however, is not an accurate reflection of the importance of the medium in shaping and defining the style of some of history's most influential artists. While Raphael and Rubens, for example, are among the most exceptional of painters, their designs for tapestries are every bit as remarkable. The truth is that few artists rarely work with just one medium. During the Renaissance in particular, tapestry was the most important figurative art, collected by the wealthiest and most powerful patrons, and was therefore a medium in which prominent artists strove to work.
The Met addresses one such remarkable artist in the exhibition Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, on view October 8, 2014, through January 11, 2015. Coecke was truly a Renaissance master of all disciplines who achieved immense fame in his lifetime, though in the literature the overwhelming genius of his tapestry designs is often bypassed in favor of critique of his panel paintings and drawings. Certainly, to many of his contemporaries, Coecke's most admired works were his tapestry designs. In Grand Design, the breadth of Coecke's work is explored by reuniting nineteen of his most beautiful tapestries with more than thirty of his prints and drawings and seven of his panel paintings.
On display are five tapestries from Coecke's Story of Saint Paul series, which must be judged one of the most innovative and groundbreaking Flemish designs of the period, and which helped define the narrative and compositional mode that was to be widely followed for biblical and historical subjects for decades afterwards. Also on view are Sloth, Pride, Lust, and Gluttony from his Seven Deadly Sins, in which figures twist and turn in every direction, accompanied by an imaginative spectrum of monsters and grotesque figures. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is generously lending three tapestries from the only surviving set of the Story of Joshua, depicting the principal events of the patriarch's life. Coecke's subsequent successful series, the Story of Julius Caesar and the Story of Abraham, editions of which belonged to Henry VIII, are represented by drawings and a magnificent tapestry lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
In contrast to the high drama—with protagonists in violent action and extreme contrapposto—of his earlier series, Coecke's later designs incorporate figures of greater refinement and passages of calmer linear rhythms. The unprecedented loan of Coecke's great Descent from the Cross triptych from the Museu Nacional de Arte Antigua in Lisbon, on display in the final section of the exhibition, provides a touchstone for the stylistic attribution of Coecke's later tapestry designs: three pieces from the Story of Vertumnus and Pomona, alongside the Flaying of Marsyas from the Poesia and the dramatic scene from the Story of the Creation when angry God discovers Adam and Eve after the Fall. Also included in the exhibition is an example from the Conquest of Tunis tapestry series, which I argued in the 2002 exhibition Tapestry in the Renaissance should be recognized in part as Coecke's work, in collaboration with the court painter initially assigned to create the series, Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen.
The commercial success of Coecke's designs is attested by the number of duplicates that were woven during his lifetime. His later tapestry series include some of the most poetic and beautiful designs of the mid-sixteenth century. The exhibition provides a long-overdue reassessment of Coecke's achievement and his contribution to the development of the northern Renaissance.