Art Under the Microscope: Threads

How exactly was the gilding of tapestries done in the 16th century? These microscopic images reveal all.  

These images show the warp and weft threads used to create a background detail in the Triumph of Bacchus tapestry recently exhibited in “Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV.” 

Viewed from a distance (like when the tapestry is hanging high up on a wall), the combo of the crimson silk with the gold threads looks like a bright copper, and here we can see all the separate colors and textures that build up that look.

Triumph of Bacchus, design overseen by Raphael, ca. 1518-19; design and cartoon by Giovanni da Udine. Brussels, workshop of Frans Geubels, ca 1560. Paris, Mobilier National, inv. GMTT 1/3.  Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis

Art Under the Microscope is a series that features, well, art under the microscope, as photographed by our conservators to better study and preserve our collections.

Bubbles in amber

The amber was polished in order to reveal these dendritic air bubbles trapped between flow layers. The magnification is forty times and the image was taken in brightfield, ie with the light shining through the specimen. This image won 17th place in the 1983 Nikon small world photomicrography competition.


Image credit: John Koivula

Have you ever seen coral under the microscope?

Well now you have! This is a coral called Frogspawn coral. One of its tentacles had to be removed because it was attacking another coral! See the bleached edges of the red plate coral?

This is a common behavior among corals and sea anemones. They can send out those extended tentacles filled with stinging nematocysts, which are basically poisonous harpoons. Some of you might have had some personal experience with nematocysts- if you’ve ever had close contact with a jellyfish, that’s what caused the stinging! Makes sense, since jellyfish and corals are actually closely related

And that’s what they look like at high magnification. The arrow on the left is pointing to the spiny string that can penetrate like a hypodermic needle. The arrow on the right is the empty cell were the nematocyst was previously coiled up. Overlaying the cell is a cell with a nematocyst that has not yet been released. Note all the strings in the background- those are more nematocysts! 

You’ll notice that the tentacle is chock-full of little red-brown dots. Those are actually symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae (don’t ask me to pronounce that) that live in coral by the millions and help the coral gain energy. To be more specific, those algae are dinoflagellates, which I’ve featured on my blog before