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  • Writer's pictureIldiko

Raphael Tapestries of the Sistine Chapel!

If you have been to Rome, you have likely been to the Vatican. If you have been to the Vatican, you have likely been to the Sistine Chapel. If you have been to the Sistine Chapel, you are likely familiar with the Raphael Tapestries. So, what the heck are they doing in Columbus, Ohio?? They are not, but they kind of are!

The Columbus Museum of Art has curated an extraordinary exhibition featuring Renaissance tapestries made from Raphael's original cartoons. Cartoons?? Yes, read on!

Cartoons are full-scaled paintings of the image meant to be woven. (The phrase 'cartoon' actually comes from the Italian word cartone, which means cardboard.) For example, the tapestry piece shown above was copied from the center of the cartoon shown below.

What are the Raphael Tapestries?

Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520), the famous Renaissance artist from Urbino, was commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 to create the cartoons for tapestries destined to be hung along the lower half of the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Raphael was asked to design scenes, primarily from the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, that portray key episodes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul, the founding fathers of the Christian Church. The images were first drawn, then painted on a matrix of nearly 200 smaller cardboard pieces that were carefully glued together to ultimately form a large full-scale scene, or cartoon, approximately 13X16 feet in dimensions. Raphael responded with a series of 10 full-scaled cartoons, four from Peter's life and six from Paul's life. In 1517 those cartoons got shipped from Rome to Pieter van Aelst's workshop in Brussels where they were used as the templates, for the weavers. That workshop was a high-tech weaving center renowned at the time for creating luxurious tapestries for the royal palaces of Spain, England, and France. There, Raphael's painted images were transformed into magnificent woven tapestries, the first seven of which graced the Sistine Chapel walls in December 1519.

Today, visitors to the Sistine Chapel for the most part crank their necks throughout the duration of their visit, glaring upward at its vaulted ceiling to admire Michelangelo's brilliantly painted frescoes showing scenes from the Book of Genesis, as well as the sibyls and prophets who foretold Christ's coming. Many enter and exit the chapel, without even looking at the frescoed upper sidewalls, portraying the lives of Jesus and Moses, except for the front altar wall which, again, hosts Michelangelo's Last Judgement. In the early 1500s, however, for about 2 years, visitors to the chapel would have admired equally, if not more, Raphael's many rich, large wall tapestries mounted at eye level, encircling the lower walls of the entire chapel. Raphael's Acts of the Apostles tapestries were made with wool and silk threads, many of which were wrapped in silver and gold. Tapestries, at that time, made with such luxurious threads and time-consuming craftsmanship, were the most valued art form of the period and were held in higher esteem than painted art.

You may be wondering... why were they admired in the Sistine Chapel for ONLY two years? Well, they only hung in the Sistine Chapel for about two years. Why? Because Pope Leo X who commissioned them died in December 1521, two years after the Raphael tapestries were finished and hung. At the time of his death, his debts were outrageous and several of the tapestries were quickly pawned to pay off his massive debts, although they were gradually recouped during the subsequent year.

Now, all 10 are back at the Vatican and are displayed, in rotation, behind humidity and light protective glass in the Raphael Hall (Hall VIII) of the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca. They no longer hang in the Sistine Chapel and haven't for several centuries... with TWO recent exceptions (keep reading).

What about the Cartoons?

Raphael's cartoons, for the most part, survived. Although three were lost, seven of the original ten cartoons ultimately made their way from Brussels to Genoa, Italy. There, in 1623, they were purchased by King Charles I of England who took them to England where he founded the Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory, near London. Those seven original Raphael cartoons, thereafter, stayed in England and are now part of the permanent collection of London's Victoria and Albert Museum. At Mortlake, King Charles I commissioned Raphael's cartoons, to again, be woven into tapestries. (In fact, over the years, many sets of tapestries were actually woven from Raphael's original cartoons for various aristocrats and palaces across Europe.) The Mortlake-woven tapestries were ultimately acquired by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony, shown in the bust below, in Dresden in 1728. Augustus was an avid art lover and collector who transformed Dresden into a major cultural center in the early 18th century. His impressive collection of European Renaissance art, including Mortlake's Raphael tapestries, became the core of what is today The Old Master Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) in Dresden. It is these Raphael tapestries, from Dresden, that are on loan and on exhibition in Ohio's Columbus Museum of Art, and are herein referred to as the 'Dresden tapestries.'

How are the Raphael tapestries in Dresden and in the Sistine Chapel alike?

The most obvious way in which the two sets of tapestries are alike is that they were both made from the SAME cartoons...that is, Raphael's original cartoons. Hence, the same biblical scenes are illustrated in both sets of tapestries.

Both sets of tapestries were also woven from their reverse sides, face-down, which resulted in an inversion of the images, as compared to the cartoon template from which they were copied, as shown in the Paul Preaching in Athens tapestry below.

How are the Raphael tapestries in Dresden and in the Sistine Chapel different?

There are several ways in which the two sets of tapestries are different from each other, including content, the location where woven, when woven, and the total number of tapestries per collection.

Addressing content first, it is important to note that the Sistine Chapel tapestries were woven for a Catholic client, while the Dresden tapestries were woven for a Protestant client. With that in mind, some elements that were present in Raphael's cartoons were not woven into the Dresden tapestries, such as the halos over the apostles' heads, and the key given by Jesus to Peter to lead the charge, essentially designating him as the first pope. In Protestant England, the notion of the pope's authority is rejected, so Christ merely gestures to Peter, but no key is given! The halos were omitted from the Dresden tapestries in keeping with the Protestants' practice of de-emphasizing the supernatural in religious art. You can see this in the pictures below. Compare (top) Raphael's cartoon, (middle) the Dresden Tapestry, and (bottom) the Sistine Chapel Tapestry.

The workshops and locations where each set of tapestries was woven, differed. The Sistine Chapel tapestries were woven in Pieter van Aelst's workshop in Brussels, thought to be the premier tapestry workshop of the time. The Dresden tapestries were woven in the Mortlake workshop in England.

The Sistine Chapel tapestries were woven between about 1517-1520, while the Dresden tapestries were woven a century later, in about 1625.

Lastly, the Sistine Chapel tapestries consisted of a total of 10 tapestries... four featuring Peter and six featuring Paul. Whereas, the Dresden tapestries consisted of a collection of 6 tapestries... 3 with Peter (The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, Peter Heals the Lame Man, and Christ's Charge to Peter) and three with Paul (Paul's Conversion of the Proconsul, Paul Preaching in Athens, and The Sacrifice at Lystra.) The tapestries below are from the Dresden collection.

Raphael's 500-year Anniversaries of Birth and Death

Raphael Sanzio was born in 1483 and died at the young age of 37, in 1520. As a celebration of his life and artistic genius, and to mark the 500th year of Raphael's birth and death, the Vatican decided to display Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries in their original location along the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. They hung some of the tapestries briefly in 1983 to celebrate his 500th birthday. They then hung all 10, temporarily, for just one short week in 2020, to honor the 500th year of his death, before returning them to their more protective location. That was the only time that ALL 10 of the Raphael tapestries hung in the Sistine Chapel since they were all completed in 1521. Amazingly, the Sistine Chapel was open to tourists per its routine schedule during those weeks. No special ticketing was required. Below is a photo of the Raphael tapestries hanging in the Sistine Chapel taken in Rome in 2020. The photo is credited to the Governatorato SCV - Direzione dei Musei.

Imagine seeing the Sistine chapel looking like that! Perhaps the ceiling wouldn't dominate our gaze either!

The Columbus Museum of Art is the only American venue hosting the exhibition 'Raphael - The Power of Renaissance Images: The Dresden Tapestries and their Impact.' It can be viewed through October 30, 2022. The exhibition showcases the six Dresden tapestries, a couple of preliminary drawings by Raphael himself, shown below, as well as, several paintings by other artists who were influenced by Raphael's cartoons. I encourage you to see it if you have the opportunity. You will not be disappointed!

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