Even trekking through the exquisite art-laden spaces of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will not prepare one for the experience of coming face to face with the grand tapestries designed by Pieter Coecke van Aelst (1502–1550).
If his name doesn’t come to mind as easily as Raphael or da Vinci, it should. By the time Coecke was in his late 20s, he’d already mastered drawing and painting and had designed the tapestry series on the life of Saint Paul.
Throughout his working life, cut short at the age of only 48, Coecke moved with ease through many media: painting panels, drawing designs for stained glass, goldsmith’s work, prints, and publishing architectural handbooks. But his tapestry designs remain his most admired and coveted works.
The first major monographic exhibition devoted to this 16th-century Netherland artist, “Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry,” explores his multifaceted career and great drive as an entrepreneur and visionary.
“He could have made a respectable living as a panel painter, but looking at his drawing we see that above all he is a designer,” said organizing curator for the exhibition, Elizabeth Cleland.
She explains that for designers the progression from painting to tapestry would be that the artist would create the petit patron, the small-scale work. This would then be handed to the cartoon painter to produce the full-scale paper model-cartoon, which would then be used by the weavers to create the final product.
Fragments Complete the Picture
As working tools, cartoons were used until they fell to pieces. For this reason there are very few surviving pieces. The fragments of Coecke’s original cartoons that are on display as part of the exhibition demonstrate the meticulous detail and lengths to which he went so that the finished work would be as close to a rendition of his concept as possible.
And according to Cleland, there is circumstantial evidence that Coecke was working very tightly with the weavers.
These few cartoon fragments, such as the man’s head from the “Story of Caesar: Reunion of Pompey and Cordelia,” the horse head from the “The Life of St. Paul,” reveal such dynamism and beauty that they were likely kept for that reason.
“When we look at his cartoons, they’re so good that we can see his hand in them,” explains Cleland.
It is then more than likely that the minuscule detail and refinement displayed in the tapestries designed by Coecke is owing to the artist’s close involvement in the process of production.
There are 19 epic tapestries on view in the exhibition, and each one is larger than life, bustling with historical as well as mythological characters set amidst ebullient vegetation and architectural elements.