A Conservation Triumph: 1994–2013

For the first time ever, three prized tapestries from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s permanent collection will be exhibited together in the Legion of Honor’s Gallery 1. The entire series, known as The Triumph of the Seven Virtues, consists of seven tapestries that depict allegorical representations of the theological virtues—Faith, Hope, and Charity—and the cardinal virtues—Temperance, Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude. While 10 museums in Europe, the United States, and Russia possess tapestries from this series, the Fine Arts Museums have The Triumph of Fortitude, The Triumph of Prudence, and the only extant example of The Triumph of Justice.

Triumph of Justice tapestry from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues Series
Triumph of Justice from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues Series, ca. 1535. Belgium, Brussels, Flemish. Wool, silk; tapestry weave. Gift of The William Randolph Hearst Foundation. 1957.125

Approximately 15 by 18 feet in size, FortitudePrudence, and Justice are among the largest and most fragile artworks in the Museums’ collection. A combination of environmental conditions, usage, the delicate media that make up the tapestries, and previous attempts at repairs led to their degredation over time, so for the past 20 years The Triumphs have been undergoing conservation treatment. International experts, museum conservators, interns, and long-time textile lab volunteers have contributed to the care and treatment of these exemplary works of art, and their exhibition is the result of a truly monumental group effort.

Seven staff members and volunteers work together to unfurl a monumental tapestry

Providing these fragile pieces with greater support was of foremost importance to their overall conservation. First, a “second skin” comprised of a layer of loosely woven linen scrim fabric was secured to the reverse of each tapestry.

A textile conservator stiches the supportive backing onto the tapestry's reverse

For the weak areas in Fortitude and Prudence, fabric patches were also stitch-supported on each tapestry’s backside. New wool warp, custom dyed to match, was then stitched over the patches on the front of each tapestry. Examples of Fortitude and Prudence still exist elsewhere, so conservators were able to reference them for accuracy. After the patches were applied, the original pattern was reintroduced using wool yarn and polyester thread.

The case of the eagle depicted in Fortitude not only illustrates how conservators used extant examples to make appropriate repairs, but also how this work was conducted in the years before the digital revolution.

Seated on a chariot drawn by lions, the personification of Fortitude is shown facing left. At her feet sits an enormous eagle.

The personification of Fortitude sits facing left with an eagle at her feet

As the result of a previous repair, the eagle’s wing was disfigured.

The eagle's wing appeared torn and disfigured as a result of a previous repair

By consulting other examples of the Fortitude tapestry, conservators were able to make a new repair based on the original feather pattern.

After treatment, the eagle's wing exhibits the original pattern

This treatment, however, took place prior to the rise of digital photography and the Internet. Using film photography and a Xerox machine, conservators were able to reproduce the pattern by scaling the photocopy and using the “brick-stitch” technique to fill out the bird’s missing feathers.

A xerox copy from another version is used to scale patterning for our eagle

A striking example of how conservation treatments can reveal previously indecipherable meaning can be seen in the mistaken identity of Cloelia in Fortitude. Pictured on horseback at the far left of the composition is a woman whose name had been previously repaired to read “Cloelia.”

Left: illegible text; Right: Chloelia

During treatment, however, our conservators discovered that the name had originally contained the letter “h” and should read “Chloelia.”

A woman on a horse wearhing a banner stating the name "Chloelia"

Prudence introduces yet another intriguing female character, this one named Abigael. In the lower right corner of the tapestry, Abigael kneels before King David. Her long dress has deep folds and is woven of luxurious yellow silk, which is quite fragile.

Abigael kneels and the rich folds of her yellow silk dress cascade behind her
Triumph of Prudence from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues Series (detail), ca. 1550. Belgium, Brussels, Flemish. Wool, silk; tapestry weave. Gift of the Provident Securities Company. 62.19.3

Her name appears in a panel across her upper back, but the portion just below it exhibits damage, which conservators were able to carefully stabilize.

Left: Ripped panel beneath the name Abigael; Right: Repaired area

For Justice, cotton patches painted with fabric paint and minimal patterning were placed behind each hole. Because Justice is the only one of its kind, and patterns from the missing areas cannot be referenced against other examples, very little patterning was added to the patches.

Fabric shapes serve as patches for holes in Justice

A common rule of thumb among conservation professionals is that a treatment should be discernable at six inches, but not at six feet. This is particularly applicable to the conservation of monumental tapestries, when the treatments should allow viewers to enjoy the tapestry as a whole while still being able to distinguish original work from repair.

Triumph of Justice from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues Series (detail)
Triumph of Justice from The Triumph of the Seven Virtues Series (detail), ca. 1535. Belgium, Brussels, Flemish. Wool, silk; tapestry weave. Gift of The William Randolph Hearst Foundation. 1957.125

After their 20-year makeover, the tapestries were finally ready to go on display at the Legion of Honor. Plan your visit today.