The Reunion of a Lifetime: Raphael’s Tapestries and his Cartoons

I’m very excited actually to be seeing this exhibition in a couple of weeks’ time when I go to the V&A. I’ve seen the cartoons before – they are part of the V&A’s permanent collection – but this will be very different.

Raphael himself never saw his cartoons alongside the tapestries because he never visited Brussels while the tapestries were being woven. Indeed no one has probably seen them hanging side by side for some 500 years because the tapestries were sent to Rome – some of them in time to be displayed at the Christmas mass in 1517 –  while the cartoons remained in Brussels until they were acquired by the future Charles I in 1623 and brought to London. This special loan by the Vatican of four the tapestries is truly a once in a lifetime – see it now or never – opportunity!

Mark Evans, the V&A’s senior curator responsible for the exhibition, talks of the possibility of seeing the “vital spark” linking Raphael’s cartoons to the tapestries that were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X to hang on the low walls of the Sistine Chapel, beneath Michelangelo’s ceiling.

The author of a piece for The Economist‘s Prospero blog writes:

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.” …  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.

Tapestry is undoubtedly one of the most glorious art forms of the Renaissance, “the ultimate luxurious decoration” as Mark Evans puts it.  These masterpieces were the work of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels and they are reputed to have cost almost five times as much as Michelangelo’s ceiling.  They are still only brought out on very special occasions to hang below the equally magnificent frescoes of scenes from the life of Christ by Ghirlandaio, Perugino with Pinturicchio, Botticelli, and others.

The restoration of these wonderful tapestries and their loan for the V&A exhibition is being funded by one of the Vatican Museum’s largest benefactors, the hedge fund manager cum philanthropist Michael Hintze, who also financed the Dorothy and Michael Hintze Sculpture Galleries in the same museum.

I’ll write up more when I’ve been to see the exhibition, but when I booked online I was amazed to find that it was free – thanks, Michael Hintze!

2 Replies to “The Reunion of a Lifetime: Raphael’s Tapestries and his Cartoons”

  1. Hi Lucy,

    I cannot wait to get to London for this show, hope they have plenty of tickets for my October visit, maybe I’ll run into you!

    I was in Rome for the preview showing of this exhibition and our guide arranged for a special evening visit in the Sistine Chapel where these beauties hung underneath the ceiling frescoes of Michelangelo for one night only. It was truly awesome and my family and I will never forget the sumptuousness of the whole thing.

    I just also found this video on the tour company’s website that gives another exclusive look inside the empty Sistine Chapel with the tapestries in place. How beautiful! Enjoy!

    1. Hi Rama,

      That must have been beautiful and a memorable occasion! I was in the Sistine Chapel last June – on a Friday evening visit so it wasn’t quite as crowded as normal, but of course the tapestries were conspicuous by their absence. There were plenty of tickets when I booked online ten days ago. Enjoy your visit too!

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