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Raphael

· London exhibition: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel ·

The exhibition ‘Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel’ was inaugurated on 8 September and will run until 17 October at the Victoria and Albert Museum (v&a) in London. The following pieces written by Senior Curator, Dr Mark Evans, and the accompanying images are taken from the exhibition catalogue (London, V&A Publishing, 2010). This exhibition is a collaboration between the V&A and the Vatican Museums. It is generously supported by Michael and Dorothy Hintze and The Hintze Family Charitable Foundation, with further assistance from the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums – an organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of one of the world's greatest collections of art which has been displayed in the Vatican for more than 500 years. For more information visit: www.vaticanpatrons.org and http://mv.vatican.va

The Raphael Cartoons are one of the great treasures of the High Renaissance, commissioned in 1515 by the Medici Pope, Leo X. They are full-scale designs depicting the Acts of St Peter and St Paul for tapestries made to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. The Cartoons were painted by Raphael and his assistants, in gouache on paper. Between 1516 and 1521 their compositions were woven into 10 tapestries of wool, silk and gilt-metal-wrapped thread at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, the main centre for tapestry production in Europe. Like the outstanding French singers and the Franco-Flemish polyphonic music introduced to the Sistine Chapel at the same time, these sumptuous tapestries purposefully emphasized the Papal majesty of Leo X. As designs for tapestry, they represent a fundamentally new stylistic departure. In 1623 the seven Cartoons that now survive were purchased for use in the tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, and remained in England. During the 18th century Raphael attained the zenith of his reputation, and the Cartoons became some of the most famous paintings in the world. Since 1865 they have been on loan from the Royal Collection to the V&A [Victoria and Albert Museum]. The tapestries remain in the Vatican Museums.

Because tapestries were exceedingly costly, and vulnerable to damage from light exposure and dirt, they were usually displayed only on special occasions. Seven of the tapestries woven from Raphael's Cartoons were shown for the first time on St Stephen's Day, 26 December 1519. The set was subsequently displayed on principal feast days. On 31 May 1787 the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in Naples to view the eruption of Vesuvius, wrote in his diary: “I am so firmly set on seeing the Feast of Corpus Christi in Rome, and the tapestries woven after Raphael's designs, that no natural beauty, however magnificent, can lure me away from my preparations for departure”. The loan of four of the tapestries to the United Kingdom in 2010, to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, has continued this tradition of display on special occasions. It has also enabled the Cartoons and the tapestries to be reunited for the first time since they were made, and compared with a group of their preliminary drawings.

The Raphael Cartoons speak a forceful formal language. Closely following the text of the Acts of the Apostles, they represent weighty figures acting out a series of momentous encounters. Raphael seems to have simplified the compositions and magnified the protagonists' gestures so that their message should clearly be read, even when translated into the medium of tapestry, which traditionally emphasized decorative values. Raphael's German contemporary Albrecht Dürer may have seen the Cartoons, as is apparent from his similarly monumental Four Apostles of 1526, which bears the cautionary inscription: “All worldly rulers in these dangerous times should give good heed that they receive not human misguidance for the Word of God, for God will have nothing added to His Word nor taken away from it. Hear therefore these four excellent men, Peter, John, Paul, and Mark, their warning”.

As Leo X was especially concerned with the reform of preaching and was certainly mindful of the dangers of heresy, it is likely that he would have subscribed to this advice, expressed by a moderate Catholic and an admirer of Martin Luther.

On account of their clear dramatic narrative and unimpeachable subject matter, the Cartoons – and woven, painted, engraved and finally photographic copies of them – displayed a seemingly infinite capacity to address the concerns of a succession of audiences, both Catholic and Protestant. In 1772 the first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wryly observed the “many disquisitions which I have read on some of the Cartoons... where the Criticks have described their own imaginations; or indeed where the excellent master himself... left room for every imagination, with equal probability to find a passion of his own”.

Raphael's pre-eminence was first questioned in 1851 when the influential English critic John Ruskin wrote in defence of the recently founded Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: “they will draw either what they see, or what they suppose might have been the actual facts of the scene they desire to represent... all artists did this before Raphael's time, and after Raphael's time did not this, but sought to paint fair pictures, rather than represent stern facts; of which the consequence has been that, from Raphael's time to this day, historical art has been in acknowledged decadence”.

The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari had similarly conceded that the peak of perfection attained by Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo was followed by a period of artistic decline.

Ruskin's attitude to Raphael changed over time, from initially unbounded admiration to a mixture of approval of his early work and dislike for his late style. He recalled how already in his youth “the Cartoons began to take the aspect of mild nightmare and nuisance which they have ever since retained” and vehemently criticized the theme of papal supremacy in “that infinite monstrosity and hypocrisy – Raphael's cartoon of the Charge to Peter”.

Nevertheless, copying the Cartoons remained a regular part of the curriculum of students at the Royal College of Art until the Second World War. By the time they returned to public display in 1950, Picasso had generally supplanted Raphael as a role model for young artists.

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