After 16 years of conservation, the 1644-56 Life of Christ tapestries by Giovanni Francesco Romanelli that crown the art collection of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine have returned to view. Unlike their previous positions high above parishioners’ heads, they’re temporarily installed in the Chapel of St. James, wrapping around the room at eye-level, as they would have been in the 17th century when the textiles heralded the wealth, taste, and Christian piety of the Barberini family.
The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome is a contemplative exhibition that winds through the grand and intimate spaces of the Manhattan cathedral, where the tapestries mingle with the church’s tomb effigies and stained glass. It’s curated by Marlene Eidelheit, director of the cathedral’s Textile Conservation Laboratory, and James Harper, professor of art history at the University of Oregon.
On view are 10 of the 12 Life of Christ monumental tapestries, chronicling the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ in newly clean wool and silk. The two that are not — the “Last Supper” and “Resurrection” — received the most damage in the five-alarm fire that broke out in the church on December 18, 2001. The New York Times reported on December 19 that the two were “retrieved only after they had been thoroughly soaked by the hoses,” and what “remained by midafternoon was a soggy heap of charred material that was deposited on a table in the middle of the cathedral.” Soot, dirt, and centuries of gravity’s pull also necessitated the conservation of the other tapestries.
While in 2009 the tapestries of the “Crucifixion” and “Agony in the Garden” were lifted into the north and south transept arches for the Easter season, the first display since the 2001 fire, The Barberini Tapestries is a rare experience. It allows a proximity and closer engagement with the textiles through accompanying displays on conservation, context, and the Barberini family. Details like a faded four-century-old repair on the “Adoration,” or botanical flourishes on “Baptism” representing the life-giving power of the rite between John the Baptist and Jesus, are visible as never before. All 12 tapestries are explorable through an online interactive, including before and after images of the two burned tapestries, which lost between 30 to 40 percent of their scenes. The digital portal is hosted by the University of Oregon, whose Jordan Schnitzer Museum will open an exhibition on the tapestries this September 23.
This fall’s trip to the West Coast is only the latest stop in the journey of the Barberini tapestries. Initially commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, from the baroque artist Romanelli, they were woven in Barberini’s own tapestry workshop. The 17th-century weaver’s marks are still present at the bottom of the tapestries. Each is additionally adorned with three bees against a blue background, the Barberini coat of arms (a symbol of industry and success that has a curious iteration on some of the borders, with bees working a plow).
The tapestries were not designed to be static objects, but rather art that was lived with, wherever their owner may be. A timeline of their travels from 1650 to the present included in the exhibition has stops at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where Cardinal Barberini regularly loaned the tapestries, and the palatial Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane in Rome, which was the headquarters of the family. Just before construction on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine started in 1892, the donation of the tapestries was arranged by the Reverand Morgan Dix and Bishop Henry Codman Potter, whose tomb effigy is appropriately situated in front of the exhibited tapestries in the chapel. The series had been acquired by Elizabeth U. Coles through collector Charles M. Ffoulke, who had bought the tapestries from the Princess Barberini in 1889.
The New York City cathedral’s art now ranges from a Keith Haring altarpiece to playful sculptures by Tom Otterness framing the altar, with recent exhibitions including Xu Bing’s “Phoenix” sculptures formed from Beijing construction debris and Jane Alexander’s Apartheid-referencing animal figures. It’s always the soaring, sacred Gothic and Romanesque architecture that gives these works a distinct resonance. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tapestries as an elite object fell out of favor in Europe, and viewed in museums today, it’s often hard to grasp how they were meant to envelope the viewer, warming drafty palace rooms with the heavy fabric. At the cathedral, The Barberini Tapestries encourages a recollection of this past meaning, along with an appreciation for the inch-by-inch conservation work that has preserved them for the 21st century.
The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome continues through June 25 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Morningside Heights, Manhattan).