St. John the Divine is once again a showcase for the Barberini tapestries, a gift to the Morningside Heights cathedral from Elizabeth Coles of New York and Newport in 1891, one year before the church’s cornerstone was laid. The items are world-renowned works of art, united for the first time in decades.
Ten tapestries from the 12-panel Life of Christ series adorn three of the chapels in advance of Easter. The 17th century Italian Baroque hangings have been cleaned and restored at the cathedral’s on-site Textile Conservation Laboratory, after a serious fire in the north transept in 2001 damaged some of the works.
Two of the panels, “The Last Supper” and “The Resurrection,” were badly burned and only fragments from the former are included in the current show; four suffered smoke damage. The other six were spared because they were already at the laboratory, which was set up in 1981 specifically to care for the series, Marlene Eidelheit, the lab’s director, told us.
“It’s the first time we are telling the whole story of the tapestries,” Eidelheit, also the exhibit’s co-curator, said. “It’s the first time they are being shown at eye level, versus 50 feet up in the air.”
Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), nephew of Pope Urban VIII, commissioned the works, which were produced at the tapestry workshop he founded in Rome in 1627. The series was designed by Baroque painter Giovanni Francesco Romanelli and woven by members of the della Riviera family over a 13-year period from 1643 to 1656. The massive weavings measure roughly 16-feet high and 12-to-19-feet wide and stand testament to the political and cultural power of the Barberini family.
In the 17th century, they decorated Palazzo Barberini in the center of Rome and were loaned out to St. Peter’s Basilica and a host of churches and secular venues. Photos of the buildings in Rome that housed the tapestries line the walls here, with another set of photos showing the works installed at various locales within the cathedral since their donation more than 100 years ago. “For a long stretch, they were hung behind the high altar in the apse,” Eidelheit said.
At the Chapel of St. James, seven of the wool-and-silk-woven panels are wrapped around the room, providing a panoramic view of scenes in the life of Jesus — namely “The Annunciation,” “The Nativity,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” “The Baptism of Christ,” “The Consignment of the Keys to St. Peter,” “The Agony in the Garden” and “The Crucifixion.”
The four corners of each work bear cartouches with images of three bees from the Barberini coat of arms. Other cartouches grace the borders, boasting images of a rising sun and three bees pushing a plow — emblems of the power and work ethic, respectively, that distinguished the Barberini dynasty — in addition to symbolic images of the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.
The adjacent Chapel of St. Ambrose houses the complementary pieces, “The Rest on the Flight into Egypt” and “The Holy Land” (a woven map). Behind the high altar, the Chapel of St. Saviour concludes the exhibit with a single tapestry, “The Transfiguration,” depicting the ecstatic scene, described in the Gospels, after Jesus climbs a mountain and appears to three of his disciples in shining glory. (Two darkened fragments from “The Last Supper” are in a display case nearby.)
This is a house of worship and, therefore, the works here have an added spiritual dimension. One approaches them with reverence, like the reverence reserved for the altars in the chapels. During our visit, people were sitting on chairs and contemplating the divine, as expressed in the art and felt in this soaring, still unfinished cathedral, the largest in the world.
But this house of prayer is also functioning like a museum or gallery, with bold signage, in the chapels and outside them, explaining the history of the art and the cast of characters that made it possible and brought it to New York (plus a timeline and exegesis of textile conservation). A booklet and double-sided guide, plus two looms and a catalog by Eidelheit and her co-curator James Harper, a Barberini tapestries scholar, provide additional context.
Tapestry production flourished in the Middle Ages and beyond, especially in northern Europe. Per the booklet, prior to the Industrial Revolution, workshops employed “tens of thousands” to manufacture these luxury items — “portable art” prized by royals and aristocrats who moved around a lot.
“They added warmth to the stone of castles, churches and great houses (where they often hung right next to each other around a room, as close as wallpaper panels) and could be used as curtains to cover doorways or provide privacy in bedchambers,” the booklet reads.
Textile series, especially, were prized for their versatility. They could be shown in their entirety or piecemeal — inside the manor or outside at the parade.
“This is a one of a kind set that stuck together since it left the Barberini family,” Eidelheit said.