Cathedral Tapestries

The Life of Christ

The Life of Christ tapestries, from the Barberini looms of Italy, were woven under the direction of the nephew of Pope Urban VIII at a time when most tapestries were woven in northern Europe. They are unique, the only set woven from preparatory cartoons, or designs, by baroque court painters Pietro da Cortona and Francesco Romanelli. The set of twelve Barberini Tapestries can be identified by the corner cartouches, each containing three bees, a symbol from the Barberini Coat of Arms. The set is composed of: The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Adoration of the Magi, The Flight into Egypt, The Baptism of Christ, The Transfiguration, The Last Supper, The Agony, The Crucifixion, The Resurrection, The Consignment of the Keys to St. Peter, and Map of the Holy Land. The tapestries are 12-19 feet wide by roughly 16 feet high.

1890s – 1940s

The foundation stone of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was laid on December 27, 1892. One year before Cathedral construction began, the donation of the Barberini tapestries was arranged through the efforts of the Right Reverend Henry Cadman Potter, Bishop of New York; the Reverend Morgan Dix; and Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles of Newport, Rl, and New York City. Mrs. Coles acquired a set of twelve tapestries from collector Charles M. Ffoulke of Washington, D.C.—who had purchased them from the Barberini family in 1889—and donated the entire set to the fledgling Cathedral.

In 1907, the Barberini tapestries were loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and several were put on exhibition in the rotunda and among the J. Pierpont Morgan Loan Collection in the New West Wing. When the first services were performed in the new Cathedral crypt in 1899, Resurrection and The Last Supper were temporarily installed. Eleven tapestries were returned from the Metropolitan Museum in 1911, in time for the consecration of the Cathedral Choir and several chapels. Seven tapestries were hung in the curved upper walls of the Choir, so that that they could be seen behind the High Altar, which is the traditional place for tapestries in a church. Four tapestries were hung in each corner of the crossing.

Mid-20th Century

In preparation for the completion and dedication of the Cathedral Nave in 1941, an all-out campaign of restoration of the Barberini tapestries began at the hands of the Baroness Wilhelmine von Godin, a lace-maker turned tapestry restorer trained in Munich. A January 7, 1940 New York Times article details the Baroness's progress on the Barberinis: one tapestry, The Crucifixion, was "completely restored within a few weeks," yet approximately one year was spent on The Adoration of the Magialone. What is surprising about the Baroness's work is not simply that she singlehandedly took on these huge and fragile tapestries, but that the media took such a sustained interest that her repair looms were set up in public view at the Permanent Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Crafts (PEDAC) Galleries, Rockefeller Center. Within the next few years, the Baroness single-handedly repaired all twelve of the Life of Christ tapestries—which then adorned the walls of the Cathedral.

21st Century

A significant loss occurred in the 2001 six-alarm fire in the Cathedral that severely damaged two of the Barberini tapestries and caused smoke damage to others hanging at the time. While the conservation of the set had been ongoing, it accelerated after the fire and was completed in time for a selection to be hung for the rededication of the Nave in 2008. In 2017, the ten conserved tapestries were hung together in the Cathedral chapels to celebrate the culmination of the conservation effort. Shortly after, they traveled to the Jordan Schnitzer Art Museum in Eugene, Oregon, the first exhibition outside of the Cathedral in 106 years.

Explore the Tapestries

An interactive look at all 12 of the Barberini Tapestries.

The Acts of the Apostles

Based on events in the New Testament's Book of Acts, The Acts of the Apostles were copied from the famous Raphael cartoons, which were designed for a set of tapestries woven between 1517 and 1521 by Flemish master weaver Pieter van Aelst. The original set of 10 tapestries was commissioned by Pope Leo X to fill the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Three of the cartoons were lost very early on, but the remaining seven were purchased in Geneva in 1623 by England's Prince of Wales, later King Charles I. (The original set now hangs in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.) The Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory immediately began to weave copies of the Raphael cartoons under the direction of Sir Frances Crane. England produced the finest wool ever used in tapestry work and with Italian art design and Flemish loom operators, many textile historians consider the Mortlake Manufactory of great importance. The Cathedral's set, donated by Mrs. Margaret Louise Bruguiere in 1954, is very similar to Mortlake work and is one of 55 complete or partial sets of tapestries known to have been made in Europe from the Raphael cartoons.

The set in the Cathedral includes the subjects of the remaining seven Raphael cartoons—The Death of Ananias, Paul Preaching in Athens, The Blinding of Elymas, The Healing of the Lame Man, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to St. Peter, and The Sacrifice at Lystra—as well as a companion piece to The Death of Ananias, The Death of Sapphira (Sapphira was the wife of Ananias). In addition, Christ's Charge to St. Peter was woven into two pieces (prior to its donation to the Cathedral), bringing the total up to nine. The tapestries vary in size; their specific dimensions were chosen to fit the house of Daniel Finch, the Earl of Nottingham and of Winchelsea, who commissioned this set in the 1690s.

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