Barberini Tapestries hung behind the high altar Tapestries behind High Altar (early 20th century)

Cathedral Tapestries: The Life of Christ

The Life of Christ tapestries, from the Barberini looms of Italy, were woven under the direction of the nephew of Pope Urban VIII at a time when most tapestries were woven in northern Europe. They are unique, the only set woven from preparatory cartoons, or designs, by baroque court painters Pietro da Cortona and Francesco Romanelli. The set of twelve Barberini Tapestries can be identified by the corner cartouches, each containing three bees, a symbol from the Barberini Coat of Arms. The set is composed of: The Annunciation, The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Adoration of the Magi, The Flight into Egypt, The Baptism of Christ, The Transfiguration, The Last Supper, The Agony, The Crucifixion, The Resurrection, The Consignment of the Keys to St. Peter, and Map of the Holy Land. The tapestries are 12-19 feet wide by roughly 16 feet high.

The foundation stone of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was laid on December 27, 1892. One year before Cathedral construction began, the donation of the Barberini tapestries was arranged through the efforts of the Right Reverend Henry Cadman Potter, Bishop of New York; the Reverend Morgan Dix; and Mrs. Elizabeth U. Coles of Newport, Rl, and New York City. Mrs. Coles acquired a set of twelve tapestries from collector Charles M. Ffoulke of Washington, D.C.—who had purchased them from the Barberini family in 1889—and donated the entire set to the fledgling Cathedral.

In 1907, the Barberini tapestries were loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and several were put on exhibition in the rotunda and among the J. Pierpont Morgan Loan Collection in the New West Wing. When the first services were performed in the new Cathedral crypt in 1899, Resurrection and The Last Supper were temporarily installed. Eleven tapestries were returned from the Metropolitan Museum in 1911, in time for the consecration of the Cathedral Choir and several chapels. Seven tapestries were hung in the curved upper walls of the Choir, so that that they could be seen behind the High Altar, which is the traditional place for tapestries in a church. Four tapestries were hung in each corner of the crossing.

In preparation for the completion and dedication of the Cathedral Nave in 1941, an all-out campaign of restoration of the Barberini tapestries began at the hands of the Baroness Wilhelmine von Godin, a lace-maker turned tapestry restorer trained in Munich. A January 7, 1940 New York Times article details the Baroness's progress on the Barberinis: one tapestry, The Crucifixion, was "completely restored within a few weeks," yet approximately one year was spent on The Adoration of the Magi alone. What is surprising about the Baroness's work is not simply that she singlehandedly took on these huge and fragile tapestries, but that the media took such a sustained interest that her repair looms were set up in public view at the Permanent Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Crafts (PEDAC) Galleries, Rockefeller Center. Within the next few years, the Baroness single-handedly repaired all twelve of the Life of Christ tapestries—which then adorned the walls of the Cathedral.