The Raphael Cartoons
A history of the cartoons
From commission to creation
When Leo X was elected pope in 1513, he had the opportunity to make his own contribution to the ambitious programme of decoration in the Sistine Chapel. The chapel, built by Pope Sixtus IV between 1475 and 1481, was the official papal chapel and was referred to as the first chapel in Christendom. Sixtus had commissioned wall frescoes from many leading artists of the early Renaissance, such as Botticelli and Perugino; his successor, Julius II, had commissioned Michelangelo's spectacular ceiling frescoes. The main remaining area on which Leo X could make his mark was that of the lower walls, which he decided to cover with a tapestry cycle.
Leo X commissioned a set of tapestry designs, or cartoons, from Raphael in 1515. The ten cartoons depicted episodes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. The scenes, whose content Leo X most likely worked out in discussion with Raphael and Vatican theologians, all served to emphasise the pre-eminence of the Roman Church and the legitimacy of papal succession. His choice of Raphael as designer of the tapestries was a bold move. Tapestries had long been a speciality of Flanders, with Flemish artists providing the designs and doing the weaving. By commissioning tapestry designs from one of the giants of Italian art, Leo X was creating something special - a combination of Italian Renaissance aesthetics and Flemish weaving expertise.
Raphael was already involved in numerous projects when he received the commission. Fortunately, he had by this time established a workshop and was able to enlist the help of his assistants. He and his workshop completed the cartoons by December of 1516, little over a year after receiving the commission. The cartoons were sent to the Brussels workshop of tapestry weaver Pieter van Aelst in early 1517. The commission of the tapestry cycle, including the designs and the completed tapestries, cost Leo X 16,000 ducats - more than five times the amount paid to Michelangelo for the decoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
From cartoon to tapestry
Although Raphael's cartoons have been prized since the eighteenth century as independent works of art, in their own time they were seen as a stepping stone in the creation of the final object - the tapestries. Because of the expensive materials and expert labour required for its production, tapestry was generally regarded as a more prestigious art form than painting during the Renaissance.
Once completed, the cartoons were sent to the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst, a prominent Flemish weaver. Flanders (modern Belgium) was for centuries the undisputed centre of tapestry manufacture, and its weavers were considered the very best - the natural choice for a commission of this importance.
When the cartoons arrived, they were cut into vertical strips 91 centimetres (one yard) wide - the width that one weaver could comfortably work on by himself. The strips were distributed to the weavers, often according to an individual weaver's area of expertise (for example, landscape or figures). Each weaver placed his strip under his loom, beneath the vertical warp threads (the 'framework' of the tapestry). He then used the strip of cartoon as a guide for weaving the design, using a combination of coloured silks, wool, and metallic thread. The finished strips were then woven together to produce a complete tapestry.
The finished tapestries differ from the cartoons in two key aspects. Because the weavers worked on what would be the back of the tapestry, using the cartoon as a guide, the final image was reversed in the tapestry. Also, the tonal gradations and colour contrasts Raphael used in the cartoons were too subtle and varied to be exactly replicated by the weavers. The tapestries are, therefore, not exact copies of the cartoons, but a distinct art form in their own right.
The 'afterlife' of the cartoons
The cartoons' journey from the Brussels workshop of weaver Pieter van Aelst to the V&A was long and convoluted.
Throughout the sixteenth century, the cartoons were passed around weavers' workshops in Brussels as their popularity grew and various monarchs, such as François I of France and Henry VIII, commissioned sets of tapestries after them. However, some of the later sets were likely to have been made from copies of the cartoons - the originals may have been too damaged by repeated pricking to be used so many times.
In 1623, seven of the ten cartoons, now in Genoa, were purchased by Charles I for £300, and have since remained in Britain. Charles commissioned his own set of tapestries from them, which were woven at the Mortlake tapestry works. After Charles's death, the cartoons were kept, still in strips, in wooden boxes in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. For reasons which are still unclear, Oliver Cromwell did not sell the cartoons. Perhaps, given their modest purchase price, he did not think it worthwhile to sell them. It is also possible that he intended to commission another set of tapestries for himself.
The cartoons returned to the Royal collection after the Restoration, and although the Gobelins factory in Paris tried to buy them, they remained in London. By the end of the seventeenth century, the cartoons, now reassembled, had begun to be appreciated as works of art in their own right. William III set aside space for them in Hampton Court Palace, where they were displayed in frames in a gallery specially designed for them by Sir Christopher Wren. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the cartoons came to be regarded as some of the most important works of art in existence.
The cartoons became extremely popular in the nineteenth century due to a loan exhibition at the British Institution in London and the practice of using them as a school for art students, who copied from them (sometimes directly, which damaged them further). When the National Gallery was founded in 1824, a number of artists lobbied for their transfer to the Gallery. Instead, in 1865 Queen Victoria sent them on loan to the South Kensington Museum - now the Victoria and Albert Museum - where they have remained ever since.