Wednesday, 2 May 2012

A Didactic Tapestry in New York

In its hundred year history Dovecot has woven a number of tapestries for the USA. These include the major collection of works designed by Frank Stella for PepsiCo and collaborations with Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaller which were instigated by tapestry editeur Gloria F Ross. Pre-dating all of these, was a 1956 commission for an altar frontal, to hang in St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York. The tapestry is no longer on permanent display, but I was able to view it during my visit to the city.

Gould Memorial Tapestry, 1956, designed by Canon Edward Nason West, woven by Fred Mann and Harry Wright.
The tapestry was commissioned by Mrs Ethel Gould in memory of her husband, William Stocking Gould. It is a beautiful tapestry, full of rich colours and patterns. Because it is no longer on permanent display the colours of the yarns have survived well. This has also been helped by the low light levels in the church, which is surrounded by skyscrapers. There is only a one-hour slot each day to get enough light to fully appreciate its awe-inspiring stained glass windows.

What interests me is not just its quality and beauty, but its religious significance. The tapestry was designed by Canon Edward Nason West who was a member of the clergy at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, New York. Canon West was considered to be an expert on church decoration:

'West always said "Do things decently and in order" so that you can communicate clearly and powerfully through clear visual symbols, "because the worshipper is entitled to understand what is going on".' (Obituary, Episcopal Church Archives,

The tapestry is contains a number of heraldic shields, each containing a symbolic representation of a religious figure. At the centre is Christ, represented by a cross, surrounded by the Virgin Mary (a winged heart pierced by a knife), John the Baptist (a Maltese cross), the Four Evangelists and a number of Apostles. The tapestry is a didactic image, using recogniseable visual imagery. The tapestry's composition, Christ surrounded by important figures, reflects the large sculptural reredos on the wall immediately behind the altar.

St Thomas Church reredos sculpture, image from here.

The tapestry was woven to fit into a particular place in the sculpture. The image below includes a pale yellow rectangle which indicates where it would have hung. Also below is a black and white image of an old postcard in which we can see the tapestry in its sculptural 'frame'.

The Gould Memorial Tapestry is a great example of how tapestry can be used in religious settings, not as simple decoration, but as a meaningful contribution to the message of the church.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...