For the first time ever, Raphael's tapestries for the Sistine Chapel and the drawings he created for them are exhibited together ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
In 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create a series of designs for tapestries that would hang on the low walls of the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling. It was an exceptionally important commission, which ultimately cost the pope five times what was paid for the overhead painting. Tapestry weaving is slow, labour-intensive work, and these were big—about 10x13 feet—and heavy with threads of gold. There were ten in all, woven in Brussels.
These "Acts of the Apostles" tapestries and Raphael's full-scale drawings of their designs (called cartoons), have since gained great fame. But in five centuries no one has ever seen them together, including Leo and Raphael. The tapestries went to Rome, and still hang in the Sistine Chapel on feast days. The cartoons stayed in Brussels, where other copies were made. In 1623 the future Charles I bought them, and they’ve been in the royal collection ever since. It was Queen Victoria who loaned the seven surviving cartoons to the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is where they’ve stayed.
But wait a minute, clever readers may be thinking. The weavers must have seen the completed tapestries alongside the cartoons.. Well, yes, but mostly no. When Raphael’s designs arrived in Brussels they were cut into long strips about a yard wide, the width of warps (the up and down threads) on the tapestry looms. A strip was set under the warp to guide the weaver’s labours. They weren’t pieced together again until they were in England.
I’ve seen the cartoons many times. The cycle concentrates on events in the lives of Peter and Paul. From the first, my favourite has been “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”. It is beautiful and poetic—even this non-Christian is moved by its spiritual power (though admittedly I have to read the labels to understand what is supposed to be going on). Even in the vast, gloomy room in which they are displayed (light is the enemy of paper), the cartoons are radiant. Now they are also news.
Benedict XVI is on the first ever papal state visit to England. (For those who care to know why it’s taken so long, Google "Henry VIII".) A rare event is being celebrated with a rare loan. The pope has sent over four of the "Acts of the Apostles" tapestries to join the cartoons in the V&A. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Curiously, or maybe perversely, I wasn’t excited by the news. When I heard it I realised I had rather possessive feelings about “our” cartoons (and I am not even English, never mind a member of the Royal family.) I expected that Raphael’s painted drawings would far outshine the hangings from the Vatican. Three of the tapestries were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Renaissance tapestry show in 2002. In writing about the "Acts of the Apostles" series, the show's curator (now the museum’s director) Thomas P. Campbell states that “general opinion had it that there was nothing more beautiful in the world.” Again I harrumphed. Now that I have seen the show, I have stopped harrumphing.
Go. Forget comparisons. Raphael, we know, was a great artist. But so were those weavers. They were terribly paid and he was famous but they did not follow his designs slavishly. They expressed their own aesthetic too. Many unexpected thoughts are provoked by looking from cartoon to tapestry and back. I found myself for the first time thinking about what time of day the miracle of the fishes took place. The cartoon is done in the close moody tones of evening. The men and creatures in the tapestry have been touched by the light of the sun. Pleasure has been doubled, not diminished. What a gift this is.
"Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel" is at the Victoria & Albert museum from September 8th until October 17th