The Baroque Tapestry exhibit at the Schnitzer Museum comes to a close
For the last four months, gasps could be heard in the second floor of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Those gasps ceased when the 17th century tapestry series “The Life of Christ” left the University of Oregon on Jan. 21.
The art exhibition “The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome” is the first time the tapestries commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Barberini — nephew of Pope Urban VIII — have left New York City since they arrived in 1889. The series depicts pivotal moments in the biblical story of Christ, such as Crucifixion and The Nativity through elaborately woven and dyed tapestries by Pietro da Cortona.
On loan from the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the tapestries are taking a triumphant tour of the West Coast. In 2001, a devastating fire in the Cathedral destroyed two of the original 12 tapestries, but it prompted extensive conservation efforts to restore the remaining 10 pieces. Now, average viewers cannot tell that they hung in a burning building.
Associate Professor of Art History James G. Harper, who authored a comprehensive book about the tapestries in May 2017 and curated the Schnitzer Museum exhibit, estimates that it would have cost Barberini the equivalent of about $16 million to commission this series.
As a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Harper was on a trip around Italy viewing art and thinking about what his dissertation topic would be. “You always want to do something no one has done before,” Harper said.
At the time, art historians didn’t pay a lot of attention to Baroque tapestries. That didn’t make sense to Harper. How could such intricate works of art that were substantially more expensive and versatile than their ceiling painting cousins — the tapestries could be in a church one week and line a parade the next — be so unstudied? Harper has since filled that academic void.
According to Harper, Barberini wanted to emphatically demonstrate the magnificence and generosity of his family. The tapestries, which once hung in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, were an invaluable part of propagandizing the masses of Rome in the 17th century. Barberini used the tapestries to show people that faith and reverence for his family would be rewarded with the immense wealth he had at his disposal.
Harper says creating an awe-inspiring, sensorial experience was of utmost importance to Barberini. People who have seen the nearly 16 feet tall and 12 to 19 feet wide tapestries today can vouch for Barberini’s success in that goal. Surrounded by the tapestries, the faint smell of old books emphasizes the age of the art.
Harper said he has reached a new level of understanding the tapestries since they have been on campus. “They look better here than I have ever seen them look,” Harper said.
Museum staff arranged the tapestries in the museum as closely to how they would have been displayed when they were first created, Harper says. The museum constructed temporary walls to shorten the gallery’s dimensions so that the tapestries would be as close together as possible. The 17th-century churches that first displayed these works arranged the tapestries without any space between them. Harper says viewers had to feel completely enclosed in the life of Christ.
17th century Romans didn’t see the tapestries with carefully placed electric lights. But Harper called the lighting work by museum Assistant Director Kurt Neugebauer “genius.”
“There is a value to having your name on the lips of everybody,” Harper said, referring back to Barberini’s intentions. “While the people don’t have a functional role in making the next Pope, there is less tangible value in doing something like this.”
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