First results from Pieter Coecke’s Martyr of St Paul tapestry cartoon’s restoration

Piero Bisello

The impressive number of people involved in the restoration process of tapestry cartoon for the Martyr of St Paul by Pieter Coecke, taking place at the Musée de La Ville de Bruxelles, gives a hint of the scale of the endeavour. The “field team” is composed of 5 restorers from Belgium and 5 from Paris, headed by a team manager also from Paris. The scientific committee comprises 14 experts, coming from both Musée de la Ville de Bruxelles and other international institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York (that hosted a seminal exhibition dedicated to the artist last year), The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Louvre in Paris, Royal Library of Belgium, Musée of Cinquantenaire in Brussels. This committee will decide how the interventions to the cartoon will hold the balance between the integrity of the piece, its historical layers, and a fresher look expected from a restoration.


Lasting an overall 18 months, this will go through many different phases such as lining, tensioning, repositioning the artwork on a new canvas, integrating its gaps, and giving it a preventive conservation before final presentation. Sometime during these phases, a calligraphy expert will also be employed to examine the handwriting of the colour suggestions written on the cartoon, attempting to match this handwriting with the one that surely belongs to Pieter Coecke himself. This research should finally pin down how much the artist was directing the weavers in their decisions.


Much technology is being deployed, but it is especially infrared scans that have revealed many details of the artwork that were previously unknown. As the scientific assistant Bérengère de Laveleye told Cfa, “after comparing the cartoon with the tapestry and checking the images from the scans, we noticed that a number of heads of the decapitated characters were removed from the painting in a later period, replaced with painted area on the back canvas, as some of the bloody scenes were just too macabre to be left in the original artwork. We think this later intervention might have happened in the 19th century, around the moment when the cartoon was donated to the city of Brussels by a private collector. We are waiting to run the pigment and paper analysis to prove the exact time and origin of these modifications”.


The first inspections of the cartoon have also allowed the experts to say that the artwork was most likely made by Pieter Coecke himself in its entirety without help from his workshop, as there is no trace of a “second hand” working at the same time.


New facts about the material aspects of the artwork haven’t been the only discoveries so far, since much of the characteristics of Coecke’s technique could also be observed in the first phases of the restoration. For example, it was discovered that the preparatory drawing was made of charcoal and that it included all the shadow already, which is absolutely specific for Pieter Coecke. De Laveleye also mentioned how firm the artist’s method of working appears from the first inspections, since “we could individuate almost no correction or rethinking, an impressive achievement considering the composition was laid out in such way that the future cuts of the support necessary for weaving it into a tapestry would not disturb the figures in the painting”.


Some art historians consider precious Renaissance tapestry as movable frescos, lavish artworks used to represent the court’s wealth during its travels to different residencies. But what was the destiny of preparatory cartoons? How were they handled after their translation into tapestry was completed?


According to de Laveleye, “most of them were simply not considered as artworks and so they were discarded. The reality is that those that have survived until today were only kept because of two main reasons. The first is the exceptional reputation of the artists who made them, like in the case of Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel belonging to the English Royal Family since the 17th century. In fact, Pieter Coecke’s cartoon survived during its first centuries of life because it was mistakenly thought to be by Raphael. The second reason to preserve these cartoons was political and the best example is the series of them celebrating the Conquest of Tunis, made by Pieter Coecke in collaboration with Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen and today held at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna”


Considering how much “Recovery of an exceptional piece: the Pieter Coecke tapestry cartoon” exhibition has been extensively advertised in Brussels, we were compelled to ask about the role of this particular artwork in the contemporary reality of the city that’s hosting it. For de Laveleye, “what Brussels is now, its wealth and size, is due to its 16th century tapestry industry that was the most important in Europe at the time. We should not forget that one third of the city population, from the different weaver workshops to the silk, gold and wool traders were involved in the production of tapestry. Contemporary Brussels is made on top of that world and I think it is important to share this history through the artworks that witnessed it”.

January 28, 2016