Tapestries are what we too often hurry past in a museum to get to the paintings. In the past, however, these woven masterpieces seemed at least as important to the ruling elites as anything on canvas. They portrayed in the showiest possible way mythology, history, the daily life and even the teachings of Christianity in great works that often combined blatant propaganda with deep and engrossing artistic content.
Fourteen choice examples of the greatest tapestries surviving have now turned up at the Getty Center. The "Woven Gold" show is centered on works collected by the one of the greatest accumulators of all time: Louis XIV, otherwise known as the Sun King of France.
In his long reign from 1661 to 1715, Louis XIV collected over 2,000 tapestries, a small fraction of which still exist. (There is also a tapestry that belonged to the 20th century media king, William Randolph Hearst).
Tapestry is based on the archaic Greek word "tapis" — a word that's much older than the alphabet itself. The great architect Le Corbusier called them "Nomadic Murals." You can fold them up and carry them with you wherever you go. The oldest extant examples go back to 300 BC or so, but it seems likely that the medium originated at least a thousand years earlier — both as one of mankind's earliest artistic forms and one that demands one of the highest levels of skill to accomplish. They can be given humble use by insulating walls in drafty castles or covering bad cracks on plaster. And they can also dazzle the mind.
What famous tapestries, real and fictional, there are!: The famous "Hunt for the Unicorn" series at the New York Cloisters, the Penelope tapestry in the Illiad, the presumed Elsinore tapestry behind which poor old Polonius is slain by Hamlet. Often, as at the Hearst castle, they are hung above our direct line of sight.
But here, curated by the Getty's affable, learned Charissa David-Bremer, they come into their own at eye level, flaunting their artistry.
What do they most resemble in our culture? What modern visual medium demands a huge number of skilled artists patiently to produce it from multiform ingredients of detail and color?
Film animation comes readily to mind. Even in its cyber version, it's enormously labor intensive. Imagine doing something like that in 1661, and that your pixels are tiny strands of yarn of wool and silk and even silver and gold. As many as 40 highly skilled craftsmen assembled each of them on mighty looms in factories that spread out like small towns.
The primary audiences of these tapestries were the aristocracy and a few very rich commoners who showed them in their homes. But on special occasions — like royal weddings and birthdays — they'd be gathered together in great buildings for all to see.
Often they were copies of great paintings. Sometimes great painters — such as Raphael and Charles Le Brun — originated the designs (some of them on display at the Getty) over which the craftsmen (they were all men) wove their colored yarns into the vivid fantasies of ancient rulers, gods and goddesses and idealized renderings of princes at work and play.
For Louis, who was styled "the great monarch of the universe himself," there was an agenda to many of the stories the tapestries told. "Piety, Magnanimity, Goodness and Valour" were the ideals Louis proclaimed. The legendary autocrats portrayed in the tapestries were shown on their best behavior: Alexander the Great's clemency to various defeated enemies, for instance, or Roman General Scipio Africanus' mercy to the conquered Carthaginians.
In reality, Louis XIV perpetrated some of the major wars of his century, destroyed Brussels apparently just for the hell of it, and came himself to regret his bellicose career on his deathbed.
"I have often undertaken war too lightly and have sustained it for vanity," he said then.
But if his tapestries show the world as it ought to have been, rather than as it was, they do so with a profound beauty and vision that helped make Louis XIV and his culture the envy of the Western World.
"Woven Gold" goes a long way to showing how that came to be.
"Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV" is on display at the Getty Center through May 1, 2016.