This post is about visiting the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine (two different tours) and , most particularly, taking a private tour of its world-famous Textile Conservation Lab on Wednesday, October 16th.
A CATHEDRAL – AND A TAPESTRY – IS AN ACT OF FAITH. You’ve probably already heard the story about the three bricklayers – but just in case you missed it and because it fits with the business at hand – it bears repeating: Three bricklayers were working side by side. When the first one was asked, “What are you doing?” he replied, “I’m laying bricks.” When the second bricklayer was asked the same question he replied, “I’m feeding my family.” The third bricklayer’s response to this basic query was, “I’m building a cathedral.” That third bricklayer was able to see beyond his quotidian task and tie his efforts to a larger, glorious, goal. Well, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the female equivalent to this story might be tapestry weavers and needleworkers – those (mostly) women who spent years and years of their lives working detailed warp and weft magic. This idea of work, as an act of faith where one contributes a lifetime of effort to something that will not actually be complete for generations and where an individual’s contribution is not apparent, is certainly anachronistic in our light-speed, narcissistic present. Uh … especially in New York City. EXCEPT, since this City of ours does seem to truly have everything, it also has something that pays homage – on a huge scale, no less – to these precise acts of faith.
The site of this homage is that gargantuan pile of granite and limestone at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street, the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine. Begun in 1892 and under construction ever since it also goes by the nickname, St. John the Unfinished. Through World Wars and Depressions and a devastating fire in 2001, this Cathedral of the New York Diocese of the Episcopal Church has over the years routinely time-shifted its way into the future, changing its architectural style, its politics, its arts profile and its vision of its role in its community. But St John the Divine is a modern institution steeped in classical traditions (and even fairly recently had an apprenticeship program for stone masonry) and one of its most surprising elements, tucked away on the south side of the Cathedral, is its Textile Conservation Laboratory.
Here, overseen by Lab Director Marlene Eidelheit, the Laboratory was created to conserve the cathedral’s stellar collection of tapestries. The star of this collection is a set of Barberini tapestries, given to the Cathedral in 1891, which were created in the 17th Century for Pope Urban VIII according to cartoons (the drawings on which tapestries are based) by Raphael and which were severely damaged in the 2001 fire. But the laboratory – a correct term given the amount of painstaking science involved – also works on tapestries, needlepoint, upholstery, costumes, and other textiles for other institutions and private clients and is widely considered to be the foremost textile conservation facility in the world.
Thanks to MWC Member and art conservator Susan Martin (and colleague of Ms. Eidelheit’s) the MWC has been invited to take a behind-the-scenes (in keeping with this Fall’s theme! ) tour of the Lab. The visit will most likely begin in the Cathedral looking at the Barberini Tapestries of the Life of Christ as they were made to be seen–against stone walls–as well as related artworks. Then we’ll move into the Lab itself, where we will see the 20 foot wash table where all tapestries are cleaned, and view textiles under treatment. We’ll be primed on the various “agents of deterioration” and how the textiles are treated, in part, by cleaning with a low-suction vacuum cleaner, tweezers, water and other solvents and detergent to remove soil, smoke, stains and contaminants. Finally, we’ll observe the conservation process in action and see how basic needles and hand-dyed thread are used to fill losses, close separations and add much-needed support to fragile textiles.
It would be crazy, however, to spend time at St. John the Divine and not take a good look at the Cathedral itself. The plan is to go on both the “Highlights” and “Vertical” (right up to the dome!) tours of the Cathedral in the late morning, break for lunch, and then go onto the Textile Lab. DETAILS: Wednesday, October 16th. 11am to 4 pm (approximately). $35. per person, not including lunch. Group size for the Textile Lab is very limited (no guests, please). Although price is inclusive you can choose to attend one, two or all segments of this event. If you choose to join the “Vertical” tour be aware that you’ll be climbing well over 100 steps and might want to wear sturdy, comfortable, flat-soled shoes. A reservation / payment link will be sent out shortly to all MWC members.