Weaving Lesson: Saarinen’s Sermon on the Mount

While Kingswood alumnae will recognize Studio Loja Saarinen’s largest weaving at Cranbrook, The Festival of the May Queen, did you know there’s an even larger piece by the studio off campus?

Ordered in connection with Eliel Saarinen’s commission for the Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana (today the First Christian Church), the monumental Sermon on the Mount hanging was an artistic and technical triumph completed by Studio Loja Saarinen in 1941.

First Christian Church from Progressive Architecture

Interior view of First Christian Church, showing Studio Loja Saarinen’s The Sermon on the Mount hanging. 1942. Courtesy of Progressive Architecture.

The subject was chosen by the church, and according to their archives, the Sermon on the Mount was selected as a topic because it is “the ideal for human conduct.” The tapestry, they went on, would need to suggest “worship as well as obedience.”

ccCAM2000.13 Sketch for the The Sermon on the Mount, 1941. Eliel Saarinen (attributed). Pencil, colored pencil, and gouache on paper. 26 7/8 x 11 7/8 inches. Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum. Gift of Robert Saarinen Swanson.

Eliel Saarinen likely produced the sketch of the hanging, an unsigned colored pencil and gouache drawing now in Cranbrook Art Museum. Interestingly, this is the only textile with a religious subject to come out of the Saarinen studio.

The small sketch was then enlarged onto full-size paper mock-ups, which allowed the Saarinens to review and edit the design and provided direction to the weavers at the loom.

CEC1198 Loja Saarinen showing Eliel a cartoon of their tapestry, The Sermon on the Mount, April 1941. Photo by Betty Truxell. Cranbrook Archives.

Thirteen patterned and colorfully-robed worshipers in two rows stand looking toward Christ, rendered in all white yarn on a cream background. Christ is surrounded by arcs and beams of white light that masterfully descend throughout the hanging, adding a rich depth to the composition.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry_004The Sermon on the Mount Hanging. 1941. Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Lillian Holm, Ruth Ingvarson (weavers). Wool and linen with supplemental wool weft; 12 x 27’. First Christian Church, Columbus, Indiana. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

Much like The Festival of the May Queen, the weaving is subdivided asymmetrically into rectangular shapes of varying dimensions by rhythmic bands of alternating rust, coral, and gold. These lines link into the scene’s landscape, which is made up of a series of highly stylized branches connecting green and white masses. These color-blocks sometimes read like meadows or hills; in other places, the green reads like flowering shrubs, climbing vines, or a branching tree. In the lower fields are sheep, as the tapestry moves up, birds rest within the branches.

Sermon On The Mount Tapestry large_006 Detail of The Sermon on the Mount showing the lambs, branches, and worshipers. Notice the rich variety of patterning and depth of color on the figures. Photo by Hadley Fruits.

These climbing, abstract elements helps provide movement and energy to the tapestry, balancing the white radiance of the Christ-figure with the wonder of nature. The movement of the geometric green, rust, and white blocks courses between the worshipers, much like the swag of triangles (are they flowers, butterflies, or perhaps something more abstract?) that flow through the maiden’s hands in the Festival of the May Queen hanging at Kingswood.

Cranbrook_Kingswood_8-31-15-0025-dc2_TAPESTRYFestival of the May Queen hanging, 1932.
Loja & Eliel Saarinen (designers), Studio Loja Saarinen (production). Loose linen warp and weft of wool and synthetic yarns; 216 x 192.” Photo by James Haefner, Courtesy of Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research.

The Columbus tapestry was woven by two Swedish weavers who’d worked for Studio Loja Saarinen (intermittently) since 1929: Lillian Holm, who also taught at Kingswood from 1933 until 1966, and Ruth Ingvarson. After previous projects for Loja Saarinen had been met with less-than-thorough credit given to the weavers themselves, Holm and Ingvarson demanded acknowledgement from Loja Saarinen in the press materials, as well as on the weaving itself–supposedly, Holm wove her name into the tapestry in multiple places.

After Holm and Ingvarson had completed their work at the loom, Loja worked on the hanging for weeks, unrolling it section by section on a large table in her studio and accentuating the colors through the inlay of additional threads into the primary weave. This was possible because of the discontinuous weft, known as the Handarbetes Vanner (H.V.) technique after the Stockholm school where it was developed, used in all of Studio Loja Saarinen’s large hangings.

The hanging is labeled on the reverse, with an ink-signed piece of appliqued fabric label listing Eliel, Loja, Lillian, and Ruth and their roles. Everyone’s names were also included in the invitation to the hanging’s reveal at Cranbrook in the winter of 1942, where it was displayed in the forty-foot high studio of Carl Milles.

LojaSaarinen001The Sermon on the Mount on display in Carl Milles’ Cranbrook studio. February 1942. Saarinen Family Papers, Cranbrook Archives.

Cranbrook neighbor and diarist Kate Thompson Bromley described the event in February 1942:

“It had been months in the weaving…One of the biggest tapestries woven in this country, and probably as beautiful as any, for the colors are soft and rich. The large studio [Carl Milles’] was the only place with a high enough ceiling at Cranbrook to hang it. At the end of that huge room it was decorative and glowing. It must have been a great happiness to the weavers to see it in place, for as they could only judge the section on which they were working.”

Once installed in Indiana, the weaving completed the remarkable church by Eliel Saarinen. Protected by curtains meant to shield the hanging from light and smoke, The Sermon on the Mount hangs opposite a wooden organ screen, which itself reads like a tapestry. Outside, the building façade and its glass-illuminated bell tower take on the grid and rhythm of weaving. Even the meandering lines and subtle arcs of the stone architectural ornament relates back to the design of The Sermon on the Mount.

In all its beauty, The Sermon on the Mount served as a high-point on which Loja Saarinen was forced to close her studio. As she wrote to George Booth, she was being “forced into” retirement because of a number of pressures: declining commissions, her husband’s exit from the Academy’s presidency, World War II, and a shift in focus for the Academy Weaving Department away from pictorial handweaving. Studio Loja Saarinen closed in 1942.

You can learn more about Studio Loja Saarinen, her weavers, and her products; see where the works were woven on campus; and visit Kingswood’s weaving studio and dining hall on my upcoming Behind-the-Scenes: Studio Loja Saarinen, 1928-1942 tours August 22 and 29.  You can also experience the exhibition on any of our regular Saarinen House tours. If you find yourself in Indiana, see the Sermon on the Mount any Sunday at First Christian Church or through tours with Visit Columbus.

-Kevin Adkisson, Curatorial Associate

Special thanks to Cranbrook Academy of Art graduate Hadley Fruits (Photography, 1990) for the contemporary color photographs of The Sermon on the Mount and First Christian Church.

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