Curious Objects: Textiles don’t get no respect

Editorial Staff Curious Objects

Henry VII cope, 1499–1505. Trustees of the British Jesuit Province – Jesuits in Britain. Except as noted, photographs are courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. 

The cope, a long, loose-fitting ceremonial cloak worn by a priests or bishops, is a curious object. “Imagine a circle cut in half—a cope is the shape of that half,” explains Thomas Campbell, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Benjamin Miller’s guest for the current episode of our podcast. “The diameter line is the front side; when the cope is draped over the back of a priest the straight edges will drape down in front of him, and then the cope wraps around him.”

Bishop Steven J. Lopes wearing a cope. Photograph by Victorpanlilio on Wikimedia Commons.

Henry VII commissioned thirty of these richly embroidered vestments for the English clergy, helping to lay the foundation for that special blend of religion, power, and material prestige that would mark the reign of his son, the notorious Henry VIII.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/1498–1543), c. 1537. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid; Wikimedia Commons photograph.

One of these copes is Curious Objects’ focus piece this week. But twenty-nine of its brothers and sisters shared the fate of so many renaissance textiles: oblivion. Some textiles were burned to extract the precious metal threads woven through them. More were disassembled to make new royal clothing. Still others, in the form of tapestries, languished on the walls of drafty castles, greying and tarnishing as the years went by.

Did you know that, unlike frescoes, one of the primary recommendations for tapestries—the secondary focus of the episode—was that they represented a moveable feast? They were cycled in and out of royal houses with as much frequency as the pillow covers and tablecloths in a modern interior. Like the classical orders, which increase in intricacy with each ascending story of a building, tapestries became more splendid as one approached the heart of a castle. Wool works were to be found in the anterooms, followed by a ring of wool and silk; then wool, silk, and gold; and finally the presence chamber itself would be hung with the ultimate luxury, cloth of gold—a type of velvet interwoven with gilt silver threads.

The Division of the Booty, from a ten-piece set of the Story of David and Bathsheba, Flemish, c. 1526–1528. Musée national de la Renaissance, château d’Ecouen, France.

It was through textiles that the Renaissance made its way to England. Silk, velvet, and gold with classical themes came from Italy; tapestries from the Low Countries. “Brussels was like the Hollywood of its day,” Campbell says, its huge narrative textiles inspiring Henry VIII to commission tapestries that cast him in the role of King David, a biblical figure forsaken by God, as King Henry felt himself to be after marrying his brother’s widow.

Thomas P. Campbell, director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

“When art history became professionalized in the twentieth century, it really built on the legacy of the Age of Reason, an era in which painting had become the art form of choice,” says Campbell. “But over the last thirty years or so there’s been a growing awareness that, if you want to look at the splendor of the great courts of the past, you have to take into account the textiles, the jewelry, the fashion to understand that the patrons of the day had a very different approach to the arts than we do today.”

A distinguished art historian and authority in the field of European tapestries, Thomas P. Campbell was educated at Oxford and the Courtauld Institute before joining the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he organized several acclaimed exhibitions and publications as curator. As Director, Campbell led a revitalization program embodied in award-winning exhibitions and publications, major capital projects, investment in technology and digital initiatives, and historic donations of works of art. At the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where Campbell has served as director and CEO since 2018, he has worked together with staff and board members to strengthen the institution’s ties to local communities through an ongoing Free Saturdays program, through key acquisitions and partnerships, and through the de Young Open—an open invitational exhibition that celebrates the breadth and depth of creativity in the Bay Area.