Beyond Spring Cleaning: Tapestries Get 16 Years of Grooming

Think your home furnishings are a dust magnet? New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine just spent 16 years cleaning and conserving its rare, supersize wall hangings.


Now the historic house of worship is inviting the public to enjoy the fruits of its labor – “The Barberini Tapestries, Scenes from the Life of Christ,” which once graced the Vatican and European palaces. They were designed by baroque master Giovanni Francesco Romanelli; created by weavers for Francesco Barberini, the nephew of Pope Urban VIII, from 1644 to 1656; and donated to the cathedral in 1891, a year before its cornerstone was laid.


Centuries ago, tapestries were appreciated not only for their beauty but also for being a warm buffer against chilly palace walls.


These days, they’re kept well-groomed by experts at the Gothic cathedral’s textile conservation laboratory – a labor-intensive process using dental probes, tweezers and a HEPA vacuum with microsuction attachments.

There’s also a special “bathtub” – measuring 20 by 16 feet (6 by 4.9 meters).

In addition to removing the standard dust and dirt, the massive undertaking included work on tapestries that suffered smoke and water damage during a 2001 fire.


Ten tapestries, their images woven with wool and silk yarn in rich earth tones, deep blue, green and russet, are displayed around the cathedral, with a focal point at the Chapels of the Seven Tongues, which honor immigrant populations. They’re accompanied by fragments from a severely fire-damaged tapestry of “The Last Supper,” as well as before-and-after photos from the blaze.


The works, hung with hand-sewn fabric fastener, are 15 feet (4.7 meters) high and up to 19 feet (5.8 meters) wide.

There’s plenty of room, though. The Episcopal cathedral in upper Manhattan is larger than France’s Chartres and Notre Dame cathedrals combined.


Rare books, period objects and computer kiosks provide context on the “cultural, dynastic, political and religious worlds of the Barberini family,” organizers say.


The exhibit, which also will offer educational activities, runs through June 25. The suggested admission contribution is $10.


The tapestries and artifacts will travel to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene, Oregon, in the fall.

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