A unique view of Raphael’s only tapestries

July 20, 2010

Artfully

SISTINE CHAPEL

Onlookers get a good view of Raphael's tapestries and cartoons, reunited with each other and their intended space. (CNS)

As long as we’re on an Italian kick, I thought I’d throw one more in with your spaghetti and meatballs. Any of you traveling to Rome  in the near future have a chance for a visual treat — Raphael’s only tapestry series and its preparatory drawings will be displayed side-by-side in the Sistine Chapel, the site for which the tapestries were made. London’s Victoria and Albert Museum will also hang companion tapestries and cartoons in the same way.

For a historian, this is totally sweet.

Most artists don’t intend their preparatory drawings, known as “cartoons,”  to be art objects. Think of them as sketches, oftentimes very good ones, to guide the artist — or, more likely, his apprentices or workshop  artists — toward the artist’s final vision. Raphael didn’t weave these himself; rather, he created the drawing, which the Flemish weavers followed.

However, over the years, surviving cartoons have become important in their own right. They indicate an artist’s original thought and reveal change to the plan as the actual artpiece is executed. They serve as a record for otherwise lost or destroyed works.

According to Mark Evans, senior curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum, as quoted by CNS’ Carol Glatz:

Reuniting the two halves will help people “contrast the two designs” and help them “understand how (Raphael’s designs) matured, developed and were finalized over time,” he said.

More from the story:

Because the designs would be sent off to famed tapestry artisans in Belgium, Raphael had to color them exactly like a painting so weavers would know what precise hues to use. That unique kind of detail meant the cartoons eventually became prized works of art in and of themselves.

Once in the hands of Flemish weavers at Pieter Van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels, the cartoons were cut into strips. They were copied and woven from behind so the cartoon displays the reverse image of what’s on the tapestry’s front.

Flemish weavers were highly regarded artists and had no qualms about “improving” Raphael’s designs, said Evans.

For example with the design, “Feed My Sheep,” the weavers did not like having Jesus wear a plain white robe as Raphael had indicated, so they embellished the robe with gold stars, said Evans. They also did not think Peter should be wearing blue and yellow, so they made his garment a rich red, which was considered a much more regal and sumptuous color, he said.

The tapestries cost 1,600 gold ducats a piece — an enormous amount of money because of intense labor involved and the expensive materials used like real gold and silver thread. The total cost for the 10 designs and tapestries were five times the amount Michelangelo was paid for decorating the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Read the whole thing here. It includes some fascinating history about their commissioning by Pope Leo X and their history after their completion, which includes multiple thefts and owners.

Again from the story:

Coinciding with Pope Benedict’s visit to England in September, the exhibit is meant to be a visible sign of the coming together of the two countries’ common cultural heritage, said Arnold Nesselrath, director of the Vatican Museums’ Byzantine, medieval and modern collections.

Seeing the cartoons alongside the final product is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, he said; “it was something not even Raphael ever got to see.”

Worth a plane ticket over the pond? I think so.

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About Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit.

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