Papal Bling Dazzles in Rare London Show of Raphael Tapestries

"The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," a tapestry (1516-1521) based on a design by Raphael. The tapestry will be included in an exhibition at the V&A Museum, London, from Sept. 8 to Oct. 17. Source: Vatican Museums via Bloomberg

The Sistine Chapel of the Vatican contains perhaps more great art than any single room in the world. It’s exciting, therefore, to have a portable part of its High Renaissance glory going on display in London.

To mark Pope Benedict XVI’s U.K. visit this month, four early 16th-century tapestries made for the chapel have been loaned to an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, “Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.” What makes this sensational is that for the first time these tapestries will hang beside the full-sized designs for them, or cartoons, by Raphael.

The cartoons were commissioned in 1515, the finished textiles woven by 1521. They represented scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, and their function was to hang on the lowest section of the chapel walls on special occasions. They added a touch of lavishness to an already splendid ensemble -- and Raphael a chance to compete with his rival, Michelangelo. Until now, no one -- not even Raphael or his patron, Pope Leo X -- had seen the designs and tapestries together.

In the 16th-century, tapestry, and plenty of it, was an essential possession for a great ruler, which the pope was. To lack tapestry on the walls around you was a humiliation, partly, cynics may note, because the stuff was so expensive.

To give an idea, these tapestries cost roughly five times as much as Michelangelo had been paid a few years before for painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Raphael only got a fraction of that money for his designs; most of it was spent on the costs of labor and materials, especially the gold and silver thread with which costly tapestries sparkled.

Brussels Weavers

The reason why no one had ever seen the cartoons and tapestries together is that the weaving was done in Brussels where the workshops did the best-quality work. This involved the designs being cut into strips to fit under the looms; as soon as the textiles were ready, they were sent back to Rome.

The Sistine Chapel, or as it was known at the time, the “Great Chapel,” was where the splendor of the papal court was to be seen at its most glorious. Some of that magnificence was produced locally -- Michelangelo’s frescoes, for example -- other aspects imported. The Sistine choir and composers, the finest in Europe, came mainly from France and Flanders.

The tapestries were an international collaboration: Italian design, Flemish weaving expertise. When you compare them, you discover the Flemish weavers didn’t hesitate to alter Raphael’s arrangements. St. Peter’s yellow robe, for example, is transformed to grander red, which looked more sumptuous. Gold and silver thread was introduced where they thought it would add bling. Christ’s robe in “Christ’s Charge to St. Peter” is covered with silver stars that Raphael hadn’t intended.

Luxury Surface

In comparison, the painted cartoons have deeper space, stronger shadows, more air and light. Still, even after centuries of fading the tapestries retain a luxurious surface richness. Which are the originals? Both and neither.

The cartoons were utilitarian objects, intended as a stage in the production process. By the early 16th century they were just beginning to be collected as works of art; that’s why seven out of 10 of these survived (stuck back together again, they were bought by Charles I in the 17th century and are still in the Royal Collection). The tapestries are variations on a theme: Raphael’s ideas interpreted by brilliant craftsmen. There’s no need to choose between them. For the next month we can enjoy this grand High Renaissance game of spot-the-difference.

“Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opens today and runs through Oct. 17. Information:

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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