A Tale Of Two Raphaels

When the Pope came to Britain in September 2010, four of Raphael’s tapestries for the Sistine Chapel were reunited with the ‘cartoon’s used to create them for the first time in 495 years

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Video Transcript

­When the Pope comes to Britain in September, four of Raphael’s tapestries for the Sistine Chapel will also visit London.

A special V&A exhibition will reunite the tapestries with the ‘cartoon’s used to create them for the first time in 495 years.

The Raphael Gallery, V&A June 2010

Dr Mark Evans, Senior Curator of Paintings V&A

I never thought it could happen. Of course, it’s really been depndent on this gift, if you like, from the Pope. The Raphael Cartoons are the greatst cycle of High Renaissance painting north of the Alps. There’s simply nothing like them in England or indeed anywhere else, except Rome itself.

The Raphael Cartoons were design drawings. They were made of a mosaic of hundreds of sheets of paper glued together which was then fixed to the wall. And Raphael and his assitants painted them in situ. They would then have been rolled for transport to BrusselstoPietr Van Aelst’s studio where they would have been cut into metre wide strips for use by the tapestry weaves. The cartoons were brought to England by Charles I. He paid £300 in 1623. He bought them as designs for tapestries.

It was at the end of the 17th century that they were framed up as paintings in their own right. Queen Victoria lent them to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1865 and the’ve been here ever since.

The Vatican Rome June 2010

Dr Arnold Nesselrath, Curator, Vatican Museums

Vasari called Raphael ‘I grand univerale’; the universal genius. Raphael did everything he was asked to do from painting to architecture and tapestries – the Vatican had a huge tapestry collection,and to design them was nothing unsual for Raphael. I thought bringing the Tapestries to the Cartoons was just a perfect set up. I think it’s going to be really a European event on European art that has been created from Rome to Brussels, and has been shown in London.

The Print Room, Windsor Castle

Dr Mark Evans

People tended to think of Raphael as being in the similar personality to Mozart. That, you know, drawing was a very fluent, easy, natural process for him. It’s rather humbling when you move from these colossal machines - the Cartoons, five metres wide - to these eloquent little sheets of paper.


Dr Martin Clayon

Especially in the Christ Charge to Peter where you see the drawing done from live studio models. And this sense of freshness of observation is still present in this drawing; 500 years ago these figures were standing before Raphael in the studio and he drew them in their every day clothes

Dr Mark Evans

You can imagine his saying, you know, ‘Move along a bit, you stand there, you put your hand forward, bend forward’. And that’s precisely the ideas are coming together actually on the sheet. To simplify, it is, sort of, one, two, three steps and then here we’ve got virtually the scene that could be signed off by the patron. You know, ‘This is what you’re going to get’.

The Vatican

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

There are two great things about these tapestries. The one is that they’ve found the greatest weavers you can imagine in Brussels who could translate Raphael’s painting into tapestries and the other idea is that their art is so convincing that the most contrasting sovereigns (if you imagine Henry VII, Louis XIV in France, Charles V in Vienna), they all wanted these tapestries. They are what Vasari says a ‘universal art’.

The Vatican Tapestry Conservation Studio

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

Leo X’s favourite painter was Raphael and he was prepared to pay five times the amount of money that Michelangelo’s ceiling had cost. You get a very good idea as to how these tapestries were made because the cartnoons were cut into stripes…if you imagine! – cut up aRaphael painting! But this gives you an idea [that] you can only work on a certain sections of a tapestry. So when they were woven, the people were sitting like the restorers now and they produced the tapestry in this way, and that’s the reason why they had to cut up the Cartoons.

The Raphael Gallery

Dr Mark Evans

Raphael was a great fluid draughtsman. He was also a brilliant storyteller. They were exemplary works that artists used to school their own drawing upon. But also to learn how to tell a story.

In the Miraculous Draught of Fishes we see the muscular figures of the fisherman leaning to haul out from the sea their nets bursting with fish. Astounded by this miracly, Peter falls on his knees before Christ who raises one hand in blessing. Behind him comes St. Andrew. It’s as if the two figures of Andrew and Peter are acting two stages in a single action. It’s quite cinematographic.

The Vatican Tapestry Conservation Studio

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

What we do now is of course checking all the fixings that have been done over the centuries. It is of course a great chance to see the quality. How they paint with the threads. It is one thing to have the various colours of the single threads but it’s also a question of how the weaving is done, and just if you look at something like the  flesh of St Peter, the subtelty with which they model the colour is alsmost like you do with the brush.

[some conversation in Italian]

They [the team of conservators] have created six thousand different colours, each with its code, so its almost a database of threads for tapestries.

The Sistine Chapel

The tapestries were comissioned in 1515 and the first seven were hung in the chapel on Boxing Day in 1519 and the reaction was just overwhelming. Nobody talked about Michelangelo, nobody talked about anything else. They just looked at these tapestries which were precious, which were flickering(they were full of gold  and silver). The impression was something that people hadn’t seen. They called it a miracle.

Dr Mark Evans

Absolutely incredible. I thought I’d never see it. I mean here we are –The Healing of the Lame Man. That’s wonderful. Shall we go through into the choir?

It’s interesting how you see the fall of light much more clearly marked in the reliefs of the bottom than actually in the…[trails off]

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

To hang tapestries in the chapel is the only way to work out where the single tapestry belonged in relation to the iconography, in relation to the frescoes of Michelangelo.

Dr Mark Evans

I’ve only just noitced the red figure upon the balustrade looking down. I’d never noticed him before. The perspective in much sharper in the Cartoons.

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

Hangingthem in the chapel is a great ocassion and to come up with a new reconstruction - that’s why we wanted to try this out.

Michelangelo was not here. Leo X had given him work in Florence, so Michelangelo stayed in Florence and he came back much later. But Michelangelo, when he saw this [the tapestries], became even more competetive with Raphael. He wanted to be the inventor of everything.

Dr Mark Evans

When you look down one get’s the ide of what the chapel must have looked like when it ws completely dressed on both sides. And what’s also interesting of course is to see the painted hangings alongside the actual woven tapestries as well. Fantastic.

Well, we’ve just come out of the Sistine Chapel and seen the Raphael Tapestries hanging there; the first time I’ve ever seen themin this, well, culturally supercharged environment that they created to decorate. And of course it’s something that one has read of the experience of previous visitors like Goethe in the 18th century. But to actually see the works in this setting is quite extraordinary. And I feel like I now understand these objects in a way that I never did before.

Dr Arnold Nesselrath

Rapheael is one of the greatest artists of all times. He’s one of the most complex artists of all times. And people will understand that these tapestries and the cartoons are a perfect match and can compete easily with Michelangelo’s frescoes.

Dr Mark Evans

A historian once said that the past is a foreign country. And certainly looking back as we do from the 21st century to the world of Raphael, of the beginning of the sixteenth, it’s a bit like looking lthe wrong way down a telescope and exhibitions such as these give us a unique insight into that cretive creative spark. The creative sparks that flew when Raphael Cartoons were reunited with the tapestries being woven from them. It’s an extraordinary opporunity to see two great cycles of art that are intimately related but for which for 500 years have lived separate lives.


­"I never thought it could happen," says V&A Curator, Dr Mark Evans of the coming together of two spectacular and intimately related works of art that had been separated for nearly 500 years.

In this special film, Evans visits the V&A and Windsor Castle to reveal how Raphael made the cartoons which were used to make tapestries by specialist weavers in Brussels and how they come to be at the V&A. Meanwhile, in Rome, Vatican Museum Curator, Professor Arnold Nesselrath explains how Raphael applied his 'universal genius' to sculpture, architecture and tapestry as well as painting. 

At the film's climax, the two curators meet in the Sistine Chapel to witness a hanging of the Raphael tapestries in 'the greatest room in art' . This rare event took place in July 2010 as the prelude to the autumn's historic V&A exhibition.