Rest on the Flight into Egypt,
a Tale Told through Details
Rest on the Flight into Egypt illustrates a painterly approach to tapestry that reflects the northern Renaissance love of narrative detail. Produced as a devotional object or mobile altarpiece, the composition depicts a biblical event from the Gospel of Matthew. Escaping to avoid Herod’s ordered execution of male infants in Bethlehem, Joseph flees with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. This tapestry illustrates the family’s rest during the journey, which was a particularly popular subject during the Renaissance. Joseph extends a branch of figs, plucked from the nearby tree, towards Mary. The composition is filled with meticulous, naturalistic observation—from the botanically correct rendering of fig leaves, foliage, and irises, to the diving duck, grass-chewing donkey, frog, and heron. Jagged mountains, castles, farm buildings, and field workers populate the background. The tree’s branches are filled with musical putti adding a charming touch of religious mysticism to the overall realism of the scene. In the distance, soldiers are seen in pursuit. The entire composition is surrounded by a decorative border, which acts as a frame for the narrative, enhancing the similarities to a painting.
Rest on the Flight into Egypt is the standout in the Frick’s tapestry collection for several reasons—perhaps most importantly because it is the only tapestry in the collection that is not a fragment. Often large pieces were cut down into numerous smaller decorative hangings, but Rest on the Flight into Egypt remains within its original decorative border, making it a rare example of an intact devotional weaving. It is also an example of the highest quality weaving—refined and made of the costliest materials—wool (likely from England or Spain) and silk threads (usually from Italy or Spain) and a substantial portion of gold and silver wrapped threads (typically imported from Venice or Cyprus). The inclusion of metallic thread likely increased the cost by as much as 20 times that of a plain wool tapestry. This suggests that when the tapestry was made 500 years ago the patron was likely one of the most important in Europe—someone who could afford the finest materials and the finest artisans.
Flemish weavers were known for the dovetail weaving technique you see in Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which beautifully emulates effects found in painting. This probably grew from the relationship of Flemish weavers to Italian Renaissance painters. Tapestries were typically based on full-sized, colored preparatory drawings called cartoons, and often those cartoons were designed by or after Italian artists. (Although in the case of Rest on the Flight into Egypt, the composition is derived from the work of German artist Lucas Cranach (1462-1533)). The cartoon was traced onto the heavier, stronger, more widely spaced vertical threads on the loom, called the warp, or it was positioned underneath the threads so that the weavers could follow the design. The finer, finished threads that form the design run horizontally on the loom and are called the weft. The weft is woven over and under alternating warp threads, completely covering the warp so that it is not visible when the work is finished. A range of effects were created from a rather limited palette of naturally dyed yarns by blending them together. Skilled weavers used interlocking triangles of color called hachures, which appear almost as brushstrokes as the weavers interpreted the vision of the painter who designed the image.
Large tapestries require the work of multiple weavers to complete, and the work is painstakingly slow—the higher the quality of the weaving, the slower the process. A high quality weaving could progress at a speed of about a half square yard per month. At that rate, the six square yards of tapestry forming Rest on the Flight into Egypt would have taken about a year to complete.
Following the Threads
In 2012, we began research related to our application to the National Endowment for the Arts for funds to assist in conserving this rare and extraordinary work. During the process, we unearthed archival documents shedding light on the ownership history or provenance of Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Following the trail of a note in our curatorial file we were able to confirm that the tapestry was part of the collection at Knole, an important estate in Kent, England with a history dating to its construction by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the second half of the 15th century. Most exciting was obtaining archival photographs from the late 1800s showing the tapestry hanging in the chapel at Knole. Estate inventories document the tapestry in the collection as early as the 17th century, describing it as “depicting the Holy Family’s Flight” and richly woven with gold and silver threads.
It’s certainly possible, if the tapestry was at Knole within the first 200 years of its existence, that it may have resided there from the beginning—leading to the possibility that the original owner could have been the Archbishop of Canterbury or even Henry VIII, who took ownership of Knole in 1538. More recent history of the tapestry is still being researched, but it appears to have left the collection at Knole around 1930 for another English home in Oxfordshire, where it remained until 1967, before its purchase by Helen Clay Frick in March 1969 as she was preparing for the opening of The Frick Art Museum.