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A Biblical Narrative In Colored Wools

THIS tapestry, which depicts with naive directness and simple clarity some 36 Biblical stories or events, was surely made to be ``read'' visually by nonreaders. Even the words on scrolls indicate that the weavers themselves were somewhat ignorant of the scenes presented and the correct names of their chief characters. Perhaps it was made for display in a church or ecclesiastical building, where it might be used for communicating Bible stories. If so, this tapestry communicates its message with a light, undogmatic touch, almost as if it were a 16th century cartoon strip. It is wonderfully entertaining. It is the largest German tapestry in the outstanding group of tapestries of the medieval and renaissance periods - over 150 of them - brought together as a central part of his art collection by Sir William Burrell, a Glasgow shipping magnate. Half a century ago the collection was left to the Scottish city, and is today housed in a fine modern building in one of its parks.

Although this tapestry from the Middle Rhine, made in the early part of the 16th century, measures 5 feet by almost 9 feet (the doll-like figures are about a foot high), it is still quite small compared with many tapestries of that time. In the adjoining gallery at the Burrell are far larger Franco-Burgundian, Franco-Flemish and Franco-Netherlandish tapestries, depicting scenes of hunting and courtly love.

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They were all part of what had come to be ``big business,'' the manufacture for wealthy secular clients of tapestries meant to show off status and affluence, to decorate castles and palaces, to be used as diplomatic gifts or obsequious offerings to threatening political enemies - and to exclude drafts. It's possible that a modern Croesus like Burrell would find these tapestries appealing for some of the same reasons, and in fact Burrell did set himself up in a castle whose medieval atmosphere must have suited his tapestries perfectly.

But Sir William was by no means just a pretentious collector. One of the main charms of his collection is its inclusion of numerous small but accessibly human and domestic items from all sorts of cultures and periods. And the German tapestries he collected bear witness to this. Tapestries in this part of Europe were made in small local workshops or houses - even if they were made for rich clients - and this practice continued even when other places had achieved a far greater sophistication.

THIS Bible Tapestry, old-fashioned and vernacular in style, is really a form of what we call ``folk art'' - in line, perhaps, with the medieval mystery plays which had brought Bible history vividly, if sometimes irreverently, alive to the populace. The tapestry was made by ``ordinary'' people for ``ordinary'' people - thus its immediate, universal appeal.

In the mystery plays, humor - even buffoonery - was a deliberate ingredient. Sometimes even the sermons in the churches included humorous stories, presumably to help keep sleepers awake. The sculptors and wood carvers working in medieval churches certainly introduced humorous heads and figures and scenes. Religion - for the ``folk,'' at least - was thought of as simple, understandable, relating to the behavior and situation of unimportant as well as important peo-ple: So a little bit of down-to-earth humor was not, apparently, totally frowned upon.

To read this pictorial narrative made of colored wools (with a few silk and metal threads), starting at the top left with scenes from Genesis and ending bottom right with the only two scenes from the New Testament - the betrothal of the virgin and the nativity or birth of Jesus - is to make an enjoyable, and often humorous, journey; to be reintroduced to some of the most familiar stories or introduced to some less familiar ones. Some of the stories, indeed, like Susannah and the Elders (labeled ``sassana''), or Judith and Holofernes (labeled ``Judit'' and ``olifernus'') are apocryphal. They do not appear in what is now accepted as the authentic Old Testament of the Bible.

The figures are clothed in 16th century dress - nobody expected an attempt at period costume - and this would have encouraged contemporary viewers of the tapestry to see the story of Noah building the ark, or Joseph being sold to the Ishmaelites, of Esau and Jacob with a flock of sheep, as applicable to them and their own time. Even if the ineffable creator described in Genesis is presented as a bearded man with a halo whose commanding gesture has produced stars and an earth (that looks like a child's softball with houses built on it), the point is made that the earth was ``created.''

The story of Adam and Eve is told with childlike simplicity, the ``fall'' of mankind set forth as the unfortunate start of a series of human events that continued until the redeeming birth of Jesus. It's in essence the illustration of the Biblical text, ``As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.''

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En route, the viewer is to take to heart the various exemplary lessons indicated by such dramatic happenings as the destruction of Sodom (a wonderful toppling of turreted buildings, an urban devastation licked merrily with excitable tongues of flame) and the transformation of Lot's backward-yearning wife into a pillar of salt. There she is, in the second row, a whitish-yellow column except for her head. She seems to be taking her fate very placidly - a comic figure. But the point remains amid the chuckling: It's better not to long for things foregone.

In the third row the scene of the Israelites dancing round the golden calf is depicted. It will be remembered that Moses, the great lawgiver, came down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, only to find his followers worshiping an idol - the golden calf. While the anonymous designer of the tapestry (who may have referred to woodcuts or illuminated manuscripts for his inspiration) was only able to suggest the stiffest, most ambling sort of ``dance,'' he does succeed in showing the dancers as elegantly dressed, courtly personages - suggesting that luxury and worship of riches was the problem rather than the pleasure of dancing as such.

On the same line in the tapestry, Samson is found with the doors of the Temple on his shoulder - a massive figure. He, and a little farther along, Goliath, are folk-tale giants typical of the medieval imagination. David, his sling about to let fly the fatal stone (though in which direction is not entirely evident), is a courtly small boy. His opponent is quite marvelously thick - a real dunderhead standing there with vacant look, dressed to the nines in his armor. One feels that the weavers were thinking of some local character they knew, particularly when they wove his nose and eyes. Here is the type of overgrown lad whose only resource face to face with the world is to thump it and thump it....

One or two of the scenes, of course, show sex or violence. But like the angel that stays the hand of Abraham, poised to sacrifice his only son under the mistaken impression that this is what God wanted him to do, the weavers or the designer of the tapestry, depicts everything, including violence, with dispassion, like a puppeteer. This tapestry was not designed to terrify its viewers into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The same is true of such events as Jonah being disgorged by the whale. The whale looks a great deal more anguished - not used to having to open his mouth so wide, perhaps - than Jonah, who seems to have his hands together in prayer and shows only confidence, not surprise, in his escape.

Daniel, of course, is not at all bothered by the lions who surround him like well-trained Golden Retriever puppies. For some reason the prophet Habakuk has been brought along, by a winged angel, to feed Daniel in his den. The angel, in fact, has the prophet by the hair.

Various buildings throughout the tapestry - Methuselah's hut, the tower of Babel, the city of Sodom, the stable where Jesus is born - are happily observed.

If I personally have a favorite scene, it might be the one where David is ensconced in his medieval castle playing his harp while Bathsheba sits down below catching his roving eye. The tapestry makes no unbearably heavy moral point about the temptation that tempted this very human king of old. As for Bathsheba, she is pure comedy. She sits there naughtily ``showing a bit of leg'': It's a harmless enough way for the tapestry to convey the point of the story, without recourse to any overt dramatics or vulgarity - and with the same childlike, though humorously knowing, innocence that pervades the whole of this amusing woven picture full of stories.

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