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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Raphael and The Sistine Chapel’s Catoons

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

The Sistine Chapel with Raphael's tapestries

April 2020 was an important artistic month to mark a big celebration: 500th anniversary of Raphael's death, happened on Good Friday 6 April 1520. Due to the coronavirus outbreak many events and celebrations were reduced and postponed. Rome organised a big exhibition in The Scuderie del Quirinale “Raffaello 1520-1483”, that joined together the most important masterpieces of one of the most important Master of The Renaissance.

In England are displayed some works by Raphael that are considered one of the greatest treasures of the Renaissance in the UK.

These works by Raphael, that we will study, are less known by the general public but they have an extraordinary importance as they unified a Pope and a King in their destiny of glory and they unified together three cities: Rome, Brussels and London.

These works are the Raphael Cartoons for The Sistine Chapel, the biggest series of cartoons in the North of the Alps and displayed in a huge gallery in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The Cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X de’Medici, an educated man, a refined expert of paintings and poetry and a great admirer of Raphael “Prince of Painters”, who he used as painter, sculpture, designer of tapestry cartoons and protector of the roman antiquities.

The premature death of Raphael interrupted an unprecedented artistic career but also the ambitious project of a graphic recontraction of the Ancient Rome commissioned by Pope Leo X, that would make light after centuries of oblivion and ruin at the greatness and the nobility of the Caesar’s Capital transforming Pope Leo X in a new Peter, creator and founder of a new golden age, an age of peace and harmony that Raphael painted in the fresco The Fire in the Borgo (in the Apostolic Palace) and in the Sistine’s tapestries.

Raphael, The Fire in the Borgo, 1514-17, Apostolic Palace in the Vatican City

In the Sistine Chapel, Pope Leo X wanted to make his mark in this incredible and prestigious place till that point under the patronage of Della Rovere Family with Pope Julius II who commissioned the frescos to Michelangelo. Pope Leo X commissioned the Cartoons for the tapestries to Raphael at the end of 1514 to be sent to the Brussels tapestry workshop of the famous tapestry’s designer Pieter van Aelst.

In the execution of the Cartoons Raphael, the enfant prodige, faced some challenges.

Firstly, Raphael had to paint the Cartoons on reverse order as in the "low-warp" (basse lisse) loom, the cartoon laid under the warps, so low-warp worker follows it from immediately above and produces a reversed image of the original design. Secondly, Raphael has to compete with the iconic frescos of Michelangelo.

For this reason, his style became stronger influenced by Michelangelo also in the decorative aspects giving a visual and theological completion of the decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

The ten Raphael Cartoons depicted the life of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, as described in the Gospels and from the Acts of the Apostles, highly connected with the frescos of the Life of Moses and The Life of Christ painted in the central tier of the walls by Pietro Perugino, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Luca Signorelli and Sandro Botticelli and commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV.

The tapestries were placed in the lower tier of the walls (the one frescoed with a trompe l'oeil decoration representing plain hangings) in the area, separated by a screen or transenna in marble for the Pope and other religious members. The tapestries were used at occasional ceremonies of particular importance and the decorative scheme was to be read, as for the frescos of the central tier, from the altar till the opposite way.

Through the celebration of the two “architects of the Church” Peter and Paul, Apostles to the Jews and to the “Gentiles”, there was a straight connection with the Pope, their successor, and with all the decorative scheme of the Sistine Chapel. From the Creation in the ceiling, to the first Decalogue between God and men (the Ten Commandments of Moses), renewed in the second tier with the Life of Christ, till Peter holding the keys and creating the continuity between Christ and the papacy, through the stories of the first Apostles in the tapestries.

Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Raphael, The Healing of the Lame Man, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Raphael, Christ's Charge to Peter, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Raphael, The Death of Ananias, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Under the Life of Christ were placed the four tapestries with the Life of Saint Peter starting with The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes, in the opposite side under The Life of Moses were placed six tapestries of the Life of Saint Paul from The Stoning of St Stephen till Paul Preaching at Athens.

Raphael, The Conversion of the Proconsul also known as The Blinding of Elymas, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Raphael, The Sacrifice at Lystra, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Raphael, Paul Preaching at Athens, Cartoon, 1515-16, Royal Loan, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The series appear really uniform, confirming the close execution of the Cartoons.

Raphael, aware of the confrontation with Michelangelo, gave to the drawings that “tragic style” started in The Fire in the Borgo, simplifying the decorative scheme and emphasising the gesture of the characters, to make them more eloquent and “universals” and placing them in an asymmetric composition that increased the drama.

Raphael took inspirations in a large repertoire of figurative artworks, from the ancient art seen in Rome, to Leonard known in Florence, till the Durer’s prints.

The Monumentality of Raphael, comparing with Michelangelo, doesn’t emerge from the plastic agony of the characters, but from a balance composition carefully studied, that is based on a rational space and in a classical language scheme of sizes and rhythm from the classical art and on spiritual revelation of the characters.

The tapestries commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X were displayed in the Sistine Chapel on the 26th December 1519. They were very well received, nobody was comparing it with Michelangelo, everybody was looking the precious tapestries full of gold and silver filaments and the impression was of something never seen before, defined by the visitors as a “miracle”.

The Pope used the Raphael Cartoons to commission other tapestries copies to send to the different royal houses in Europe, among them the Gonzaga in Mantua, The Habsburg in Spain, Henry VIII the Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) in England before his separation from the Roman Church.

The destiny of the Raphael Cartoons was different: they were left in the tapestry workshop of van Aelst to create other copies and as a common custom of that period probably they were lent to other workshops and studios.

Some copies are in Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Mantua and Loreto. In some of these series is missing the scene of Saint Paul in prison, no surviving cartoon, same sort for the one of The Stoning of St Stephen and in The Conversion of Saint Paul the cartoon was documented till 1528.

Of the original ten Raphael Cartoons only seven survived and for a strange and unknown destiny they were in Genoa in 1623. Prince Charles I of England was interested in the Cartoons and sent to Genoa Sir Francis Crane, the founder of Mortlake Tapestry Works, who paid £ 300 for them.

Charles grew up with a European fascination, member of the Steward a cosmopolitan Scottish dynasty, which was closely connected to the cultural influences of Italy and France at a time when the Tudor monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth I, was turning its back on the rest of Europe.

At that time, the purchase, had seriously strained Charles’s exchequer, but it finally placed him where he wanted to be, among the elite of Europe’s royal collectors like the Habsburgs and the Papacy.

Charles, with the acquisition of Raphael Cartoons, not only wanted something from one of Italy’s greater painters, it seems he wanted to prepare London for the arrival of his Catholic bride and cast himself, like his father, as the Anglican unifier of the Christian faith, bringing Protestants and Catholics together in the same way that St Paul preached the Gospel and converted the doubters. His intention was to use the cartoons to commission tapestries from the Mortlake factory that would adorn that other symbol of the Anglo-Spanish alliance, Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House.

The wedding with the Infanta Maria didn’t happen and didn’t conclude the alliance with Spain but Charles married the French Henrietta Maria, another catholic princess and this created religious and political problems in the Anglican England.

Charles I’s collection was created against the backdrop of one of Europe’s most bitter and internecine conflicts over religion and imperial authority, the Thirty Years War (1618-48). Like many other European sovereigns, Charles took full advantage of the conflict that engulfed the Low Countries, Italy and central Europe to acquire paintings and statues from kings, states and individuals ruined and bankrupted by war.

If destiny is like a cog-wheel also the Charles I’s collection had its unlucky and dramatic fall.

The religious and political tensions increased in several years gradually pushed the country towards civil wars, that ended with the capture, the process and the death sentence of the King pressed by Oliver Cromwell on 30 January 1649. After the execution of the King, a republic was declared, known as the "Commonwealth of England".

The Commonwealth did an unprecedent thing by deliberately devaluing the aura of monarchy, divesting it of the objects that defined its power and magnificence, and placing them in the public marketplace, to be valued, bought and sold by tradesmen and artisans.

The Commonwealth sale put a price on monarchy and gave birth to the art market in England by creating the conditions for a secondary market in pictures and stimulating a broader public exposure to art.

Oliver Cromwell saw the opportunity to maintain part of the Royal collection of the death king as financial investment for the new regime and among them the Raphael Cartoons were reserved in Whitehall, instead the tapestries of the Mortlake factory were sold to Spain.

During the Restoration, Charles II, in desperate need of funding, tried to sell the Raphael’s Cartoons to the Gobelins Manufactory but he was blocked by the Parliament.

Hampton Court,the Seven Famous Cartons of Raphael Urbin, printed by Simon Gribelin II, 1720, London,© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

At the end of the XVII century, the Cartoons were placed on canvases and restored by William Cooke, appointed by King William III, keen to display them. The King commissioned to the architect Sir Christopher Wren to create a special gallery at Hampton Court to host the Cartoons, where they were on display till 1813, and then they were moved to Buckingham house and in other royal palaces.

View of the construction of the packing case and horse-drawn 'van' for transport of Raphael Cartoons from Hampton Court to South Kensington Museum, Charles Thurston Thompson, 1865,© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Side view of packing case and horse-drawn 'van' for transport of Raphael Cartoons from Hampton Court to South Kensington Museum, Charles Thurston Thompson, 1865. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

South Kensington Museum, North Gallery (Gallery 94), south side showing four Raphael Cartoons, by J. Davis Burton, 1868, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1865 The Cartoons were finally deposited on loan at the South Kensington Museum (named after Victoria and Albert Museum) by Queen Victoria, museum of applied and decorative arts and design, that displayed the biggest Italian Renaissance collection outside Italy. The Raphael Cartoons are nowadays the example of the extraordinary artistic innovation of the enfant prodige Raphael, died at the young age of 37 years old.

The most recent, in 2020, the Museum to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael's death, includes a refreshed gallery and a new interpretive approach that transforms the way museum visitors experience the Cartoons. A high-resolution recording project that captured colour and infra-red image, as well as the three-dimensional data of the Cartoon's surface has given unprecedented access to his creative process, while enabling the Victorian and Albert Museum to record and preserve these outstanding national treasures for future generations.

Raphael Cartoon Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

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