Saving the tapestries

Conservators work to restore priceless treasures
December 17, 2008

On December 20, 2001, the fire at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York had just been extinguished. Debris and water covered the floor of the nave and thick, black smoke hung in the air. There were no lights. In this gloom, the Textile Conservation Laboratory staff, under the direction of Marlene Eidelheit, began the difficult and laborious task of ascertaining the future of The Resurrection and The Last Supper, two priceless 17th-century tapestries that were severely damaged.


The pair, each approximately 16 feet by 16 feet and part of a series of 12 Barberini tapestries, The Life of Christ, had hung high on the north wall of the cathedral. Now they resembled a soaking wet heap of rags piled on a table.

The conservators' first step was to carefully slide the tapestries, encrusted with soot, pieces of glass and other debris, onto plastic sheets spread on the floor of the nave. Lead in the stained-glass windows had melted from the heat of the fire and dripped onto the works, where it solidified.

The two works were rolled up and taken to the textile laboratory, a few yards from the cathedral, where they were gently placed, one at a time, on a stationary washing table. Working on a mobile platform that slides above the washing table, conservators delicately sprayed both sides of the tapestries with de-ionized and regular water. A bucket of dirt collected from the bottom of the wash table for analysis contained glass, wood, grit and very small charred tapestry pieces.

In the ensuing days, the tapestries were dried and vacuumed. A more detailed examination revealed that damage was far more complicated than delineating burned from unburned areas.

Working on the damaged tapestries was emotionally difficult, Eidelheit said, and months passed before the shock began to ease. In exploring ways to compensate for lost areas, they tapped into a rich body of expertise, including tapestry historians from around the world, museum curators and Barberini scholars.

She and her co-workers remain hopeful that The Resurrection and The Last Supper can be treated in such a way that they can be exhibited again.

"They won't be as they were," she admitted. "Our goal is to preserve as much as possible. This is what conservation is all about."