Friday, 24 September 2010

Raphael: cartoons and tapestries reunited

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

While Pope Benedict arrived in the UK amidst a swell of protest, the tapestries he brought with him from the Vatican arrived to universal excitement. For the first time in almost 500 years, Raphael's cartoons depicting episodes from the lives of St Paul and St Peter have been reunited with their woven counterparts.

The cartoons were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515 as designs for a set of monumental tapestries to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Between 1516 and 1521, they were transposed into tapestry at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, the nerve centre of tapestry production in Europe. After completion, the tapestries immediately took up their place in the Sistine Chapel. The history of the original cartoons however, is rather more varied. To begin with, the designs continued to be used by various tapestry makers in Brussels until they ended up in Genoa in 1623, where they were purchased on behalf of King Charles I. Since then, they have remained in the Royal Collection and now reside at the V & A, having been lent by Queen Victoria in 1865.

Only four of the ten tapestries have come from the Vatican, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Christ's Charge to Peter, The Healing of the Lame Man and The Sacrifice at Lystra, but it is undeniable that on entering the Raphael room at the V & A, the scale, grandeur and pure genius of the cartoons and tapestries alike is overwhelming. In each cartoon, Raphael combines a host of visual techniques to drive forward the meaning of the scene - the composition, gestures, colours are all interwoven to create the most dramatic effect. Raphael is telling a story and we understand every word.

But these paintings are designs, they do not represent Raphael as we know him. They lack the sense of depth we see in his oil-painted works, they are shallow and linear like stone reliefs. It is when we see them in conjunction with the tapestries that we truly appreciate the artist's vision. Interwoven with gold and silver threads, the colours of the tapestries are instantly lifted to shimmering heights, impossible to create in paint. Even now, their luminosity is astounding, no doubt a result of the rarity of their display.

It is likely that Raphael never saw the cartoons and tapestries together, so take the opportunity to marvel at the reunion. It's been 500 years coming.

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