Why does the Cathedral have a Textile Conservation Lab?
By Rebecca Merrill
The story of why the Cathedral has a Textile Conservation Lab is as old as the Cathedral itself. In 1891, a year before the cornerstone of the building was laid, American art collector Elizabeth Underhill Coles donated a set of the Barberini Life of Christ tapestries to the Cathedral. Though the building itself was still a dream, Ms. Coles knew that, when finished, a Cathedral needed tapestries to decorate the walls. This momentous donation gave credibility to a dream project and created a tradition of art stewardship at the Cathedral that continues to this day.
In 1899, two of the twelve panels, the “Resurrection” and “Last Supper,” were brought from storage into the first finished worship space: the Tiffany Chapel in the Cathedral crypt. When construction on the east end of the Cathedral was finished in 1911, the entire set of tapestries was hung in the Cathedral for the first time.
From 1916-1941, construction on the Cathedral’s Nave progressed and the tapestries circulated based on available wall space. In the late 1930s, Baroness Wilhelmine von Godin, a seasoned expert on tapestry, spent two years restoring the set before seven panels returned to the apse for the dedication of the nave in 1941.
All twelve tapestries were installed in the Crossing in the 1970s, bringing renewed interest and visibility to the treasured works. At the same time, the dynamic leadership of The Right Reverend Paul Moore, Bishop of New York, and The Very Reverend James Parks Morton, Dean of the Cathedral, led to an upsurge in community outreach. Two new missions were initiated: teaching stone cutting to neighborhood youth and the Textile Conservation Lab (TCL) to train future conservators in preserving the Cathedral’s tapestries.
Under the direction of Barbara Bonner, the TCL took shape. Adolfo Cavallo, as curator, ensured the TCL would take in work from other museums to support tapestry treatment. Bruce Hutchison continued the mission from 1983, promoting the Lab to the museum and conservation community and building on its growing reputation. Training new conservators remained a core goal for the Lab and that continues today. Under Marlene Eidelheit’s direction, in 1996, the TCL re-surveyed the tapestry series, and with a dedicated staff and a steady stream of conservation interns completed the necessary work on five of the panels.
The project was sidetracked in 2001 by a fire in the Cathedral that badly burned the “Resurrection” and the “Last Supper.” This galvanized efforts to complete the treatment of the remaining tapestries. By 2008, a new hanging system was created and four tapestries were installed for the rededication of the Cathedral. A rotation schedule followed the liturgical calendar and allowed the tapestries a needed rest between hangings. In 2017, the tapestries were once again displayed as an entire set, minus the two burned pieces, in the Cathedral exhibit The Barberini Tapestries: Woven Monuments of Baroque Rome.
Today, while the Barberini Tapestries are being stored to rest and prepare for their next display, the Textile Lab continues its work to teach the conservators of tomorrow, treat tapestries from public and private collections alike, and is preparing to dive in to conserving the Cathedral’s other great tapestries, The Acts of the Apostles.