Woven Wonders


In a review of the Met’s exhibition Grand Design, Anthony Grafton extols the virtues of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, the tapesty artist whom “everyone who was anyone in the sixteenth-century art world liked.” He particularly praises Coecke’s depictions of the Apostle Paul:

When Coecke depicted the martyrdom of Saint Paul, he made the setting modern—starting with the castle that bulks large in the background. The artist wanted above all to show the violence that confronted the first Christians and the combination of sorrow, fear, and understanding with which they met. To achieve such effects, he subjected his work to endless revision. For The Martyrdom of Saint Paul, we have both his petit [patron, a small pattern] and his grand patron [the image, or cartoon, that tapestry weavers followed]. Comparing them, we see that his great fluency and facility were accompanied by an equally distinctive and powerful drive for revision and improvement. A young, innocent-looking Roman soldier appears in the sketch, pulling a woman by the wrist. In the cartoon he has turned into an older, battered man who has experienced and inflicted much—and he keeps that character in the final tapestry.

Grafton continues:

Coecke was an artisan—a painter without, so far as we know, an extensive formal education. He collaborated, as artisans did, and played second chair when a monarch placed someone else in the first. And he had what Albrecht Dürer thought the artist’s and artisan’s principal gift, the docta manus (learned hand), with its tacit skills at which words could only hint. But he also looked and read as widely as any scholar. Coecke wrote a neat, scholar-like cursive hand. He read Latin more accurately than the otherwise exemplary authors of the exhibition catalog, who make a hash out of too many of his brief, clear Latin captions, and other languages as well. In fact, he produced his own partial translations of the ancient architectural work of Vitruvius and the modern one of Serlio. … Men like Coecke contained multitudes—Italian as well as northern ones—and it will take an equally capacious mind to do them justice.

The exhibition is open through January 11th.

(Image: The Martrydom of Paul by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, circa 1535, via Wikimedia Commons)