A Visit to the Renaissance

A few weeks ago, staff of the UMFA collections department unrolled two tapestries in our Great Hall. There was a dual purpose to this work: the first, was to do some gentle cleaning and make condition reports (faithful readers will recall this process from previous textile entries). The second purpose was to invite students from Professor Jessen Kelly’s course on Renaissance Material Culture into the museum to get up close and personal with these incredible pieces.

Students had the chance to see Charles Le Brun’s “The Family of Darius Before Alexander” (1619-1690) and Frans Van Den Heckle’s “The Reconciliation of Jacob and Esau” (circa 1650).

Students from a course on material culture of the Renaissance get a new perspective on some tapestries in the UMFA.

Students from a course on material culture of the Renaissance get a new perspective on some tapestries in the UMFA.

Students in Kelly’s seminar have spent the semester examining objects from the period that were a highly valued part of daily life and social practice, but are often not considered as historically important as other artistic efforts of the period.

“Tapestries constituted a major art form in the Middle Ages and Renaissance,” says Kelly. “The artistic and economic value of tapestries could exceed that of paintings.”

Under the watchful eye of Collections staff, students gather around a tapestry made over 300 years ago.

Under the watchful eye of Collections staff, students gather around a tapestry made over 300 years ago.

The need to examine these tapestries paired perfectly with the timing of Kelly’s course.

“Seeing the tapestries in person allowed for a close engagement with the material qualities of the medium, as well as the large scale of the works,” says Kelly. “The pictorial content of both tapestries were adapted from paintings, and thus comparing the tapestries to the painted images was a source of interest and inquiry—how did the tapestries alter the pictorial content of the paintings? How did the nature of the medium impact the pictorial form and overall conception?”

Seeing these objects in person gives a crucial sense of scale.

Seeing these objects in person gives a crucial sense of scale.

Tapestries can be difficult to display for long periods due to preservation issues–exposure to light is one concern. Still, the colors on these tapestries remain incredibly vivid despite the passage of time, and the work and technique is no less stunning for the passage of time.

“Students seemed especially interested in the production process, as well as the conservation work on the tapestries,” Kelly says.

Students in the seminar were able to engage with the tapestries through the important lens of the “decorative arts,” as they’d been doing throughout the semester, but they were also able to learn about the production and care of these tapestries from Museum staff. I am always amazed to watch the UMFA’s education efforts at work, and this was a very special moment.

Conservator Robyn Haynie discusses the specifics of care with an interested student.

Conservator Robyn Haynie discusses the specifics of care with an interested student.

The mission statement of the UMFA is “The Utah Museum of Fine Arts inspires critical dialogue and illuminates the role of art in our lives.” We eagerly embrace this work with all members of the community, including University students, who always get into the Museum for free.

If you’re a university student or instructor, and interested in ways you can engage with the UMFA, please contact the Coordinator of Campus Engagement: Iris Moulton, iris.moulton@umfa.utah.edu

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