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A unique view of Raphael’s only tapestries

July 20, 2010

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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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Take a Sistine Chapel tour without ever leaving home

January 19, 2009

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“Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,”

by Andrew Graham-Dixon

If you’ve ever taken a tour with a guide who wasn’t connecting with his or her group, you come to appreciate really good tour guides, people who not only know their subject but engage you in the topic, bringing information, insight and even entertainment.

My wife and I had that excellent kind of guide — Liz Lev — with a group touring the Vatican Museums. Everything we saw became so much more meaningful thanks to a great guide who was able to help us see not just artistic value but intention and the works’ place in history.

With “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” Andrew Graham-Dixon offers much of the same insight to his readers.

It’s not quite halfway into his book that the London-based art critic begins an absolutely thorough interpretation of Michelangelo’s famous paintings on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel.

But that’s because he sets up his art instructing by first giving readers a rather complete picture of the artist and his world at the beginning of the 16th century.

Inside Michelangelo’s world
No piece of the life of Michelangelo Buonarroti is left untouched, and I came to feel that the biographical section of this book was as helpful and important for understanding the Sistine Chapel as the interpretation of the world-renown paintings itself.

We learn of the artist’s family background, his training, his benefactors — and most importantly his faith.


Graham-Dixon’s analysis is that Michelangelo felt the hand of God in his life:

“Before he was ever chosen by the Medici, or the pope, he had been chosen by God. . . . He felt that he had been given his gifts by God, and charged with serving the purposes of the divine will.”

Using those God-given skills then, “Michelangelo did not just invent a new kind of art, but a new idea of what art could be,” Graham-Dixon claims. “He put his own sensibility, his own intellect, his own need and desire to fathom the mysteries of Christian faith, centre stage.”

A superior user’s guide
The heart of the book, written in observance of the 500th anniversary of the start of the work by Michelangelo in 1508, is Graham-Dixon’s interpretation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling itself. While not ignoring style, he focuses on what Michelangelo meant by what he painted, how the pictures’ meanings unfold, the subtle ways through which the artist gave expressive life to this amazing group of interlinked compositions.


As a user’s guide to the Sistine Chapel, this book is superb.


Graham-Dixon walks us through each section and each panel of each section, pointing out not only beauty and the technical skill but why each figure is painted the way it is.

What we learn is that Michelangelo was a student of Holy Scripture — especially the Hebrew Books — and that he aimed to paint “his own vision of what he believed to be the eternal truths of Christianity,” the author states.


Readers will come to understand the geography of the chapel ceiling, how the famous depiction of creation — with God’s pointed finger reading out to touch the finger of Adam — fits into the rest of the biblical history, with the great cast of characters including Eve, Noah, David and Goliath, Judith, Jeremiah, Jonah and on and on.


Graham-Dixon gives his excellent interpretive skills to helping readers grasp in much the same way Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” painted 15 years after the ceiling. Taking up the entire wall behind the chapel’s altar, it is a monumental fresco as rich with meaning as the ceiling above.


Sadly, details of this beautiful work are depicted only in black and white photos, which hardly do justice to this colorful masterpiece.

Bigger would be better
And, if there is any fault at all in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel,” it is the small size of the pages — six inches by nine inches. There are 32 full-color pages that bring the Sistine’s ceiling right into our hands, but I couldn’t help but think how much more delight to the eye would have been deivered in a larger format. Perhaps Skyhorse Publishing will be able to work that out in a later edition.

As it is, though, I compared the printing in this latest book with the same Sistine Chapel panels printed in a larger, coffeetable-sized book given to me as a gift several years ago.

The color work — the brightness and the clarity — in “Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel” is far superior.

If you plan to visit the Vatican, take this along to read on the plane ride. It’s a fact-filled yet easy read with the beautiful prose that is the hallmark of a fine writer.– bz

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