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Threads of Power

Sixteenth Century Tapestries from the Kunsthistorisches Museum

Vienna, August 2015

Threads of Power

For the first of a series of rough and ready guides to the museums of Vienna, let’s take a look at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and their current exhibition, Threads of Power.

Threads of Power is on show until 20 September and it offers a rare opportunity to see some of the museum’s sixteenth century tapestries. Due to the fragility of the material, extremely susceptible to erosion, they cannot be placed on permanent display.

There is a splendour and opulence – of colour, of detail, of composition – to these tapestries which cannot be captured by an image on a webpage. But let me make the attempt. Consider, for the moment, the tapestry, ‘An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta’:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (1.7 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V”
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

This tapestry measures 520 x 850 cm, dimensions which are not uncommon, and is part of a series entitled ‘The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V’.  They are so immense in scale, these tapestries, because they were intended to be displayed on ceremonial occasions, at banquets, coronations, weddings and other events of state. And frequently several tapestries will form a series, such as say months or seasons of the year, The Seven Virtues or The Seven Deadly Sins. Other themes might be taken from Greek or Roman mythology or the books of the Bible. Closer to home, tapestries might detail events in the life of the court or (as here) celebrate important military victories. As one might well imagine, there’s a narrative or ‘graphic novel’ feel to many of them. Now consider this detail, taken from the lower left quarter of the tapestry above:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (1.6 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” (detail)
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

We see frantic fighting but in the lower right, to pick up on just one detail,  a soldier is nursing a wounded comrade:

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta

An Unsuccessful Turkish Sally from La Goleta (2.3 MB)
Tapestry from the series “The Tunis Campaign of Emperor Charles V” (detail)
design: Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen (c. 1500 – 1559), 1545/46
produced under Jodocus de Vos, Brussels, between 1712 and 1721
wool, silk, metal threads,; 520 x 850 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Kunstkammer
© KHM-Museumsverband

The attention to detail and the craftsmanship required to pull it off is astounding; and every tapestry in the exhibition is as richly detailed as this, as deserving of examination.  In the exhibition, as well as the tapestries themselves, you also see designs for them in the form of woodcuts, engravings, and pen and ink drawings. Incidentally, I was interested to learn that most tapestries were produced in Brussels, since this tallied with what Lisa Pon said in her talk, ‘Raphael in the Sistine Chapel’, at the John Rylands Library back in May. Raphael’s tapestries, originally displayed in the Sistine Chapel, were also produced in Brussels.

Threads of Power is a spectacular exhibition, more details of which can be found here.

On show elsewhere in the Kunsthistorisches Museum there’s a vast array of art and precious artefacts accumulated over several centuries, including in the Picture Gallery masterpieces by Titian, Rembrandt, Vermeer and of course Brueghel. The Brueghel room is undoubtedly the jewel, the inspiration for Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ and the film Museum Hours. There are Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities and a coin collection. Some Klimt frescoes can be seen in the staircase from the first floor landing.

However, the most magical space, to my mind, is the Kunstkammer on the ground floor. It is a treasure trove, containing many objects made out of gold and precious jewels. Clocks and automata (not unlike those that can be seen out at the Prater today) feature in one room, a model of a Roman Amphitheatre in another. There is a Winged Altarpiece from the workshop of Heinrich Fullmaurer (made in about 1540), consisting of 156 panels, which easily eats up the hours.

Even if you spend a whole day in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, you would walk away feeling that you missed something essential, skipped over a painting or sculpture that you should really have paid more attention to. Which is why, if you live in Vienna or are a frequent visitor to the city, the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s annual ticket is incredibly good value. This is one of the world’s great museums and art galleries and an essential experience for art lovers.  More details of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s exhibitions and collections can be found here.

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