King-Size Stories, Woven for the Ages By HOLLAND COTTER Published: October 19, 2007 No one was fully prepared for the hullabaloo over Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence five years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tapestry? Doesnt that come under home furnishings? Isnt it, basically, rugs on the wall? A specialty item? The show was a sensation. New Yorkers came, they saw, they plotzed, they came back in droves. As word spread, international visitors flew in to take a peek and ended up staying for days. I suspect that the current follow-up, Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor, will spur a rash of repeat behavior. The first-time novelty may have passed. The Baroque world may be different from the Renaissance world, at once more grandiose and more ordinary, more like our own. But this exhibition too is stupefying, a king-size display of a space-eating art, awesome in its exacting detail. The 44 tapestries that Thomas P. Campbell, a Met curator, has shipped into town for the occasion are some of the largest nonarchitectural objects in the museum. The biggest is bigger than almost any painting except, maybe, for a Buddhist mural in the Chinese galleries or any sculpture, apart possibly from Assyrian reliefs. Tapestries also have to be among the most epically labor-intensive things on the premises. The exhibition catalog seven pounds of pure information tells us that it took one expert, full-time weaver at least one month to produce a single square yard of decent-quality tapestry, and far longer to turn out high-quality work. Most of the tapestries here are of the highest possible quality. And most measure dozens of yards in size a heroic amount of hands-on, thread-by-thread effort. Such expenditure of time and skill made tapestries, in their 16th-century heyday, madly expensive. But to the rulers who commissioned them, their promotional power was invaluable. More blatantly than most luxury arts, tapestries were designed to flatter their patrons, to exalt their self-professed virtues: their valor, their munificence, their chic. The images produced among them a fright-wigged monarch dressed as a muscle-bound Mars can be absurd to the modern eye, though no more absurd than the militant preening of 21st-century leaders. And if the display of tapestries at the Met is most obviously a study in socioeconomic propaganda, it is also two other things: an extended historical document, stretching from the late 16th to the mid-18th century, and a demonstration of beauty of a very particular and surprisingly personal kind. History first. By the mid-16th century, with the High Renaissance in its Mannerist phase, tapestry making had reached an apex of formal development and prestige, with celebrities, like Raphael, designing for the medium. The Southern Netherlands was the center of luxury production; any tapestry with a Made in Brussels label had automatic cachet. In the early 1560s, however, there were disruptions when Philip II of Spain, in a power grab disguised as an act of piety, militarily imposed the Counter-Reformation on the Protestant population of the Low Countries. Many top weavers had to leave in a hurry for more tolerant places. The shows first two galleries give a good sense of what that diaspora meant for European art. The weaver François Spierling, a Mennonite from Antwerp, settled in Delft, a Protestant town, and produced superlative work there. The tapestry called Garden With Diana Fountain is an example of a fashionable, precision-friendly Mannerist style for depicting small figures embedded in all-over patterning. The scene shows a labyrinthine garden, set within a walled garden, set within a hilly landscape. The result is not an image of the natural world in a tapestry but a depiction of nature as a tapestry: a splendid, impenetrable, depthless screen of shivering pixels. For something closer to realism, there are woven equivalents of contemporary news flashes. A German-made tapestry called Siege of Zierikzee records an actual event, a battle in which rebellious Netherlanders held the Spanish Navy at bay. And from Brussels at roughly the same time comes a victory report, this one from the other side. In Surprise Attack on Calais Spanish forces swarm that French coastal town before moving inland to the Low Countries. One of the greatest of the shows Mannerist tapestries, though, was made far from the martial fray: a throne canopy produced in Elsinore. It was made for Frederick II of Denmark by the painter Hans Knieper, who is referred to in contracts as Joannes de Antwerpia, and who might have been the weaver Jean de Knibbere, who was banished from Brussels for murdering a colleague. Villain or not, he was a fabulous artist, as this pristine piece proves.