NEW YORK — Apart from beloved curiosities like the Unicorn cycle at the Cloisters, the medium of tapestry had long been regarded as an antiquarian taste not worth acquiring: heavy, dusty, dark and dull. Five years ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art changed many minds with "Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence," a sweeping survey of some 40 masterpieces dating from 1460 to 1560, mostly from European sources, some illustrious, some obscure. The current "Tapestry in the Baroque: Threads of Splendor" (through Jan. 6) applies the same template to the period from 1590 to 1720.
If the sense of novelty this time isn't what it was in 2002, that's partly because the first show did its job so well. For one thing, it made the academic point that tapestries in their heyday -- "woven frescoes," Philippe de Montebello has called them -- were prized far above paintings, which established a certain snob appeal. Much more important, the chosen examples dazzled the eye with color, pageantry and high-definition detail -- exploding, seemingly once and for all, the notion of tapestry as the stepsister of painting. Strangely enough, the Baroque show may make you reconsider. It is worth pondering why this is so.
Though in some sense tapestry and painting are alternate, mutually exclusive, realities, in another sense they compete for the same niche. What sets them apart? In painting, the mind that conceives an image and the hand that executes it typically belong to the same artist. A tapestry, by contrast, is an industrial artifact, manufactured from the creative artist's design by small armies at the loom. At the same time (and for reasons not unrelated), painting is an analog medium. The brushstrokes of which a painting is composed may be of any size or form the artist chooses. They may carry a huge expressive charge. Tapestries, by contrast, are digital. Every gesture and field is built up point by single-color point. Technically, sharp edges are impossible, and so is blur. Instead, tapestries can possess a granular sparkle that plays across their entire surface -- each stitch, as it were, a pixel.
For these technical reasons, certain motifs -- flat objects, strong patterns, simple color schemes -- translate more "naturally" to tapestry than others. But as time went on, artists came into the process who did not appreciate the limitations of the medium or simply did not care. And weavers were pushed to ever greater feats of painterly illusion.
Raphael, prince of painters, issued an early challenge with his full-size color drawings for a 10-piece series of the Acts of the Apostles, commissioned in the early 16th century by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel. Several rooms into the Baroque show, we come upon "The Miraculous Draft of Fishes," perhaps the most wondrous of the set. A particularly lovely passage shows the glassy reflection of a fisherman's face on the limpid waters of the Sea of Galilee, a painterly touch beyond the vocabulary of conventional tapestry design.
Raphael's cartoons were completed in 1516. By 1519, the tapestries were on view at the Vatican, woven by Pieter van Aelst, of Brussels. His "Miraculous Draft" came to the Met a quarter century ago in the context of "The Vatican Collections: The Papacy and Art," where it held its own among supreme achievements of the greatest painters and sculptors.
The Renaissance show in 2002 included a weaving of Raphael's "Miraculous Draft" made three decades later than van Aelst's at a different Brussels workshop. The version now making a splash among the Baroque treasures is yet another one -- English and ordered up by Charles I in the 1630s. Much as the two-dozen-odd libretti of Pietro Metastasio served over the course of a century for operas by more than 300 composers, a single cartoon could spawn numerous "originals." Not all are created equal. Memory may play tricks, but to my mind the subsequent weavings -- as ravishing as they are -- pale beside the wizardly grace of van Aelst's.
In the Renaissance show, Raphael was pretty much the only painter of stature to show up as a tapestry designer. In the Baroque show, he has quite a bit of company: Simon Vouet is on hand with "Moses Rescued From the Nile," transposed to some French Arcadia. Jacob Jordaens, best known for the coarse, hearty spin he put on the sublime style of his senior contemporary Peter Paul Rubens, weighs in with the mythological "Creation of the Horse," a composition as transparent as it is heroic. From Pietro da Cortona, there's "Constantine Fighting the Lion," like a terrestrial archangel Michael. The urbane, vigorous Charles Le Brun, premier peintre du roi by order of Louis XIV, comes in not only with low-key diplomatic scenes starring his patron but also with the hurly-burly of "The Battle of the Granicus," from a cycle on Alexander the Great. Rubens himself appears here both in his crashing historic and his plush ecclesiastical modes. He, of them all, held the needs of the weavers in the lordliest disregard. He handed them cartoons painted in oil, eliciting virtuoso performances that verge on ersatz oil paintings. And, as such, they seem at the same time wrongheaded, ostentatious and somehow routine.
Against such adventurous signature pieces, the productions of tapestry specialists whose names only scholars would recognize may look retro but harmonious, perfectly realized, true to the character of the medium. Trace, if you will, the arc of whipped-up waves -- patterns! sharp detail! -- from the maritime disaster of "Siege of Zierikzee" at the beginning of the show through the maritime disaster of "A Naval Battle" in the final gallery. As much as or even more than "Water," a grandiloquent allegory from a design by Le Brun that comes midway through, these now virtually anonymous creations sum up a technique and a tradition every bit as magnificent and splendid as the titles of the Met surveys declare they were.
The celestially tranquil "Siege of Bouchon," also in the final gallery, will likewise reward a lingering look. Like those scenes of disaster at sea, it is the work of proud professionals whose names were written in water. But what wonders they were capable of! History buffs will want to know that the rider on the white horse just left of center is John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. Notice the platinum highlights in his powdered periwig. A look through opera glasses (indispensable equipment for this show) will reveal that they are no more than irregularly shaped patches of pure white thread, but from the distance of just a few steps they glow like a tungsten filament lit up by an electric current. Their incandescence alone is worth the Met's full suggested entrance fee of $20.
If space permitted, this would be the moment to roll the credits for the weavers. As it is, blanket acknowledgment must suffice. But we must not sign off without a word of gratitude to Thomas P. Campbell, curator of the Met's last tapestry show as well as of the current one -- and, let us hope, the next and the next.