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Perspectives Womens History

The Heroines of Heroes

After World War II, four Museum employees restored a set of beloved medieval tapestries

Mar 4, 2022

Photograph of a beige tapestry with archways depicting saints, hung over a wooden door

Spring 1949. Only four years since the defeat of the Nazis. Across America, and at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was a time to celebrate heroes.

Since the end of the war, attendance had increased, the Museum’s endowment had grown exponentially, and major international exhibitions had opened to critical acclaim. [1] This postwar high extended to The Cloisters—the branch of the Museum dedicated to the art of medieval Europe—where an extraordinary ensemble provided the perfect iconic images: the Nine Heroes Tapestries.

Promotional subway poster for the opening of the Heroes Tapestries Gallery, circa May 1949.

Presenting them to the public for the first time depended on the concentrated efforts of four unsung heroines: tapestry restorers Mathilda Sullivan, Helen O’Brien Burke, Aline von Arx, and Olga Wangen Larsen. Theirs was an extraordinary task, yet one almost lost to the annals of Museum history.

The Heroes Tapestries gallery at The Met Cloisters. Left: Alexander the Great or Hector of Troy. Right: Julius Caesar. Photograph taken April 4, 2011.

Dating to circa 1400, the Heroes Tapestries are among the oldest surviving medieval tapestries in the world. Woven in wool, they depict the Nine Heroes celebrated in medieval European poems and songs as perfect embodiments of chivalry drawn from Classical, Hebrew, and Christian history and legend: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar; Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; and King Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. The Museum’s Heroes Tapestries originally formed a set of three separate tapestries, with three heroes portrayed on each. Today, only five of the nine heroes survive; given the fragile nature of such textiles, it is remarkable that any survive at all.

Fragments of the Heroes Tapestries sewn into modern-day curtains. Left to right: Joshua, David, Alexander the Great or Hector of Troy, and Julius Caesar. Photographs taken August 28, 1947, before restoration.

They may have survived in part, but upon their acquisition in 1932 and 1947, the tapestries entered the Museum collection in pieces—ninety-four fragments, to be exact. It is unclear at what point in their five-hundred-year history the tapestries were cut up and dissembled, but in the early twentieth century they were pieced together as curtains in the castle of a French noble family. Working with black-and-white photographs, curators James Rorimer and Margaret B. Freeman reassembled the jigsaw puzzle of the tapestry fragments on paper. But accomplished “needlewomen” were urgently needed for “cutting apart, reassembling, piercing, and relining of these celebrated fragments.” [2] The curators found the expertise needed to restore the tapestries in four women—one a working mother and at least two recent immigrants to the United States.

Hours worked by Sullivan, O’Brien Burke, von Arx, and Larsen from 1947 through May 15, 1949. The Cloisters Archives

Mathilda Sullivan was hired in July 1947, the same month the tapestry fragments were acquired. A former Museum employee, Sullivan was paid $15/day and worked three days a week. In December 1947, Rorimer asked her to select the wool threads to be purchased for the restoration project. Her expertise on such a decision was clearly needed and welcomed. It is possible Sullivan was pregnant at this time; she ceased working at the end of the year, but she returned to the project at a later date. In four months, she spent 492 hours restoring the tapestries.

The project was on hold until Helen O’Brien was hired in April 1948. At the rate of $86/week, she was the highest paid restorer to work on the tapestries. Already a Museum employee at the Fifth Avenue building (role unknown), she was “temporarily assigned to The Cloisters” to join the project. [3] In later correspondence, it was explained that this was done so that she could receive “a much higher salary than the Museum could offer on a permanent basis.” [4]

World War II draft card of Richard Burke, husband of Helen O’Brien Burke, circa 1942. At the time, Burke was married to Sarah (she passed away in 1946). His address of 640 East 139th Street, Bronx is the same address given for Helen Burke in surviving Museum correspondence.

On August 4, 1948, in the Bronx, O’Brien married fellow Museum employee Richard Burke, a native of Ireland who served in World War II. (Given her maiden name, she might have been an Irish immigrant herself, although we do not know.) Their marriage during the project became a point of complication several months later when O’Brien asked for a pay raise. Surviving Museum correspondence explains that her request was denied because she was no longer a permanent, salaried employee. The letter continues, “…we have given her the regular vacation, marriage leave and other benefits usually limited to regular-salaried people only.” In total, O’Brien worked 2,540 hours on the tapestries.

Aline von Arx’s Declaration of Intention for Naturalization, dated February 20, 1926. Aline became a US citizen on March 1, 1948, exactly one month before starting work at The Cloisters.

A third seamstress, Aline von Arx, was hired at the same time as O’Brien. Born in 1893 in Lyss, Switzerland, von Arx emigrated to the United States around 1926. At age fifty-five, she was hired as a tapestry restorer at the rate of $50/week. Unlike O’Brien, von Arx did not receive any “privileges” or benefits. It is significant to note that von Arx became a naturalized citizen of the United States only one month before beginning work at The Cloisters, declaring, on a standard form, that she was “not an anarchist,” nor a polygamist. Becoming a U.S. citizen must have been a momentous occasion for von Arx, as she now had access to jobs previously unavailable to her as a non-citizen. She spent 2,352 hours restoring the tapestries.

Index to Petition for Naturalization for Olga Wangen Larsen, issued August 19, 1948. She began work at The Cloisters five months later.

Olga Wangen Larsen was hired in January 1949. Originally from Norway, it is unclear when Larsen emigrated to the United States. According to the 1940 census, she lived in Long Island City in Queens and was employed as a tapestry weaver. Like von Arx, she became a U.S. citizen immediately prior to her employment, at age sixty-three, on August 10, 1948. Larsen was employed at the lowest rate of pay at $40/week, though she would eventually receive a raise to $50/week. Larsen only worked on the project for five months, but she was on the Museum’s payroll until at least 1952. Correspondence between her and Freeman survives throughout this three-year period, when she presumably worked on other tapestries in the collection. Larsen spent 540 hours on the Heroes Tapestries.

Interdepartmental Memo from James Rorimer, dated March 4, 1949, stating the re-employment of Mathilda Sullivan. He writes, “I would like to point out that she is making a personal sacrifice to help us complete our installation on time.” The Cloisters Archives

By March 1949, time was of the essence. The curators needed the project completed in time for the opening of a new tapestry gallery in May, so Rorimer solicited the help of Sullivan, who had quit the project in 1947. At first, Sullivan politely refused, as she now had a child for whom she could not afford childcare. But Rorimer had a solution: he installed his own child’s bed and play pen from his Upper East Side apartment in the tapestry workroom at The Cloisters. Mathilda accepted the job and brought her child to work with her. In a memo dated March 4, 1949, Rorimer seems to refer to this exceptional arrangement, stating that Sullivan was “making a personal sacrifice to help us complete our installation on time.” [5] The restoration project was completed on May 15—just four days before the scheduled opening of the new gallery. Surviving correspondence implies the restorers were invited to the opening celebrations, but it is not known whether they attended.

With the tapestries successfully hung in the galleries, the women went their separate ways. Sullivan’s last day of work is recorded as April 30, 1949. Beginning July 1, Burke resumed her former role at the Fifth Avenue building, although she continued to work at The Cloisters on Mondays. Von Arx began looking for new employment. Rorimer assisted in her search, and by November, she was working for a tapestry restoration company. (She passed away in December 1971, at age seventy-eight.) Larsen stayed on as a tapestry restorer at The Cloisters, working on the Unicorn Tapestries in 1950. It seems that Freeman’s last letter to Larsen, dated September 12, 1952, went unanswered. Larsen must have ceased working for the Museum around this date, for reasons unknown.

The only known photograph of the two of the tapestry restorers, working on the Joshua tapestry. From the summer 1949 issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin.

Without the work of these women, the tapestries would have remained in ninety-four fragments—but the restorers received virtually no lasting recognition. While an undated photograph of two of the women working on the tapestry of Joshua appeared in the summer 1949 issue of The Met’s Bulletin, the two women are unnamed. To this day, we do not know which of the four women are pictured in the photograph. It would take another six years for the women to be acknowledged more substantially. An article on the Heroes Tapestries featured in the October 29, 1955 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The women’s names and a brief description of their work are given toward the end of the five-page article—yet the article’s primary goal was to cast Rorimer (who was promoted to Director of The Met that same year) as art sleuth extraordinaire. [6]

Letter from Aline von Arx to James Rorimer, dated May 25, 1949. In the second paragraph she writes, “…thank you and Miss Freeman for your patience and consideration. You know it wonderful the atmosphere in the Cloisters … It will always be a wonderful memory!” The Cloisters Archives

Together, Mathilda Sullivan, Helen O’Brien Burke, Aline von Arx, and Olga Wangen Larsen spent 6,670 hours restoring the Heroes Tapestries. Such intimacy with centuries-old artworks is often coveted by museum enthusiasts, scholars, and curators alike. And it seems that these remarkable women—like countless others who enter The Cloisters and spend time with its collection—were charmed by their experience. In a letter to Rorimer, dated May 25, 1949, Von Arx writes, “… thank you and Miss Freeman for your patience and consideration. You know it wonderful the atmosphere in the Cloisters … It will always be a wonderful memory!” She wrote Rorimer again the following November, saying, “The Cloisters will remain one of my most loved place, in New York City. It was a beautiful experience.” [7] Larsen shared similar sentiments. She concludes a letter to Rorimer, dated June 8, 1950, “May I add, that I feel quite at home at the Cloisters.” [8] Although almost forgotten in Museum history, these women brought some of the world’s most significant medieval tapestries back to life.



[1] For attendance and financial records of fiscal year 1948–1949, see “Report of the Director for the Year 1948” and “Report of the Treasurer for the Year Ended June 30, 1949,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (1949): 11–4 and 44, respectively. return

[2] Source for needlewoman: “Vows of the Peacock,” The New Yorker, July 16, 1949, p. 12. Source for cutting apart and assembling the fragments: “Reports of the Departments.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 8 (1949): 21. return

[3] Interdepartmental memo from Mr. Wallace to Mr. Loughry, dated April 1, 1948. The Cloisters Archives. return

[4] Typed letter from Mr. Harrison to Mr. Wallace, dated January 6, 1949. The Cloisters Archives. return

[5] Interdepartmental memo from Mr. Rorimer to Mr. Loughry, dated March 4, 1949. The Cloisters Archives. return

[6] John Kobler, “The Case of the Nine Heroes,” The Saturday Evening Post, October 29, 1955, p. 90. return

[7] Handwritten letter from Aline von Arx to James Rorimer, dated May 25, 1949. The Cloisters Archives. return

[8] Handwritten letter from Olga Larsen to James Rorimer, dated June 8, 1950. The Cloisters Archives. return

Marquee: South Netherlandish, detail from Joshua and David (from the Nine Heroes Tapestries), ca. 1400–1410. Wool warp, wool wefts, 47.101.1: 168 x 250 in. (426.7 x 635 cm) 47.152: 168 x 250 in. (426.7 x 635 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Munsey Fund, 1932; Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1947; Gift of George Douglass, 1947 (32.130.3b; 47.101.1; 47.152)