The Raphael Cartoons: the decoration of the Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is the great chapel of the Vatican, where the major religious services that are not celebrated in St Peter's basilica are held. Pope Sixtus IV, after whom it was named, rebuilt the chapel from 1475. His ambitious programme of decoration in the chapel was continued by his successors, Julius II and Leo X. The various programmes of decoration not only enhanced the prestige of the popes who commissioned them, they also contributed to the reputations of their artists.
Sixtus began the decoration of the chapel in 1481-82, hiring a team of the most prestigious artists of the time, including Botticelli, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli and Perugino, to cover the upper walls with frescoes depicting episodes from the lives of Moses and Christ. The ceiling vault was painted dark blue and covered with gold stars, whilst the lower walls were painted with frescoes imitating decorative wall hangings adorned with the arms of Sixtus's family, the della Rovere.
Commissioned by Julius II in 1506, Michelangelo frescoed the vault with scenes from Genesis. Together with the older frescoes of the lives of Moses and Christ, these provided a complete history of Man, from creation to redemption. Michelangelo was later commissioned by Pope Paul III to continue the story with a fresco of the Last Judgement over the altar.
After Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he made the Sistine Chapel even more magnificent by commissioning real tapestries of wool, silk and metal thread to hang over the fictive wall-hangings. These were designed by Raphael and woven at the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels. By focusing on St Peter, the first Pope, and St Paul, the greatest preacher of the early Christian Church, the tapestries reinforced the authority of the papacy.