Teachers' resource: Raphael – in the picture
Raphael's magnificent cartoons (painted designs for tapestries) can be used in many ways to support learning in Art & Design and Design & technology. This resource shows you how to access information about the cartoons on our website and suggests creative projects you can carry out with students in the museum and school which can be adapted for a range of subjects and key stages.
- Download Where to See the Tapestries (PDF file, 45KB)
- Download Where to See the Tapestries (Word file, 53KB)
The Raphael gallery at the V&A houses seven enormous designs for tapestries, known as cartoons, painted by Raphael between 1515-16. These are on loan to the V&A from Her Majesty the Queen. They depict scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, many of which are related in the Book of Acts in the Bible; hence the title Acts of the Apostles given to the series.
If you have access to a whiteboard, you can view these with your students before your visit. A tapestry based on the cartoon on the right is also on display with the cartoons in the Raphael gallery.
The first tapestries made from the cartoons were hung in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, but subsequently further sets of tapestries continued to be made, up until the eighteenth century. These sets now hang in museums and other institutions around the world. See 'Where to see the tapestries' for details. The Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York, the Palazzo Ducale Museum in Urbino, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Vatican Museums, the Palacio Real in Madrid, and the Staatliche Kunstsammlung Museum in Dresden also participated in the 1997 International Raphael Tapestry project.
The V&A and the Palazzo Ducale Museum in Mantua explored different ways in which UK and international teachers and students could use the cartoons and tapestries in their teaching and learning. This resource is the result of that project.
Teaching and learning activities
The seven activities suggested here can be used with the cartoons at the V&A or the corresponding tapestries in other world-wide organisations. These activities could be adapted to support schemes of work in Art & Design, Design &Technology, History and RE across all key stages.
Investigating and interpreting
The narrative scenes depicted in the Acts of the Apostles series are a useful starting point for students seeing the cartoons for the first time. Try these activities in the museum:
Without referring to the stories, ask students to look at the cartoons and try to figure what is going on. What details do they notice? Are the same people in all of them? Who is looking at whom? Where is the activity taking place? Who are the main characters of the stories? What title would students give to each one?
Give the titles of the different scenes from the Acts series to your students and have them try to match each title to a scene. Why do they think the title belongs to the scene? Could another scene have the same title? Work with the class until they think they are sure, then share Raphael's titles with them.
Read aloud the stories from Bible to students and ask them to illustrate one point in each story. Compare to the scenes depicted in the Acts of the Apostles series. What moment in the story did students illustrate? What moment does Raphael illustrate? Why have those moments been chosen? Have the most exciting parts been depicted? Why, or why not?
Raphael applied to tapestry design some of the characteristics of Italian High Renaissance painting: the study of nature and perspective; the visual recreation of a believable three-dimensional space; a variety of human gesture and expression; and shading.
Spot the difference
Compare and contrast images of medieval tapestries and paintings to the Raphael cartoons and tapestries. Look at the background, figures, colours, gestures and use of light. Look too at images of Renaissance paintings, such as Michelangelo's work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which was where the original set of Acts tapestries hung. How are the images similar and different? Specialist vocabulary can be introduced, such as 'perspective', 'composition' and 'hachures' (the comb-like effect where two colours join in tapestry).
Cartoons - whose style?
A cartoon is a design on paper for a work of art in any other medium, for example a tapestry or fresco. Each of Raphael's cartoons for the Acts of the Apostles comprises around 200 sheets of paper glued together to create a single surface.
Students might enjoy making their own large-scale cartoons. The whole Acts series is available online. Make an enlarged A3 photocopy of each image. Divide up the photocopy into equal segments and give each student a different segment and a piece of paper of the same dimensions - A5 is a good size. While looking at the cartoons or tapestries, students can use the photocopy to help them identify the segment they should draw. Ask each student to make a colour study of their segment. Back at school these can be stuck together with masking tape on the reverse to create their own version of the image.
Discuss the assembled image with them. How does it look? Do they see many different styles? Should the group try to unify it? Should it stay the way it is? Do students need to think of some ground rules such as what reds to use? If students decide to work further on their cartoon they may like to try bolder media such as pastels, watercolours or acrylic paints.
The cartoons and tapestries were especially admired for their rich repertoire of expression and gesture. Drawings of drapery, heads and gestures are a good starting point for the weaving of students' own tapestries. By focusing on these aspects, they would be following in the footsteps of 19th- century art students. In 1823 the cartoon of Christ's charge to Peter was loaned for copying to the Royal Academy schools in London and copying of the other cartoons, then at Hampton Court, was also allowed.
In the V&A in front of the cartoons, ask students to make drawings on brown paper using pencil or black and white conté crayon and focusing on tones. Back at school start by getting students to practise weaving a small sample tapestry of stripes and simple shapes to learn the technique. They should then develop their drawings into simple designs, with a limited range of colours, draw an outline of their individual design to scale and hang it at the back of the loom to work from. The design can then be drawn onto the wrap threads with a permanent marker. Tapestry weaving is time-consuming, but it is surprising how involving students will find it.
For further information about making tapestries see:
- Download a Step-by-Step Guide to Tapestry (PDF file, 328 KB)
- Download a Step-by-Step Guide to Tapestry (Word file, 332 KB)
Italian pottery painters of the 16th century frequently adapted images by Raphael. His home town of Urbino was in fact one of the main centres of maiolica painted pottery production. Students could draw details from the Acts of the Apostles to use for their own designs for painted ceramic plates. If your local museum has maiolica you could also ask students to make drawings from these, especially of the many decorative borders to be found on maiolica plates.
A light-coloured, school buff clay (earthenware or stoneware) is the best kind to use for students' plates. It takes colours well and is less likely than some other clays to stain clothes while working. Students can plan their designs on paper plates, working out borders and central design motifs. They should then roll out a sheet of clay about 1cm thick and cut it to fit an old plate, which will act as the mould for their own plates.
Relief elements make an interesting addition, although they are not typical of maiolica pottery. Students can cut shapes out of sheets of clay or form them in moulds. These can then be attached by scoring the underneath of the shape and the place on the plate where it is to go, wetting both with a little water, then blending the edges together.
When the clay is half-dry (the 'leatherhard' stage), large areas of flat colour can be brushed on with coloured slip. Designs can be added by scratching through the flat colour to reveal the light clay underneath. When the slip is dry, students can use underglaze colours to give a more painterly effect where required. Good brushes are very important for painting on the underglaze colours. After the first firing add a low-solubility transparent glaze to give depth and intensity to coloured slips and underglaze colours, and fire the plates for a second time.
Prints were the maiolica painters' main source of Raphael images. In the gallery ask students to make drawings from the cartoons or tapestries, concentrating on tone, in particular Raphael's famous subtle shading or sfumato. Back at school they can translate their drawings into black and white monoprints.
The first step in monoprinting is to roll a thin, even layer of black ink out onto an acrylic or formica block. Oil-based inks give a longer working time but good quality water-based inks are more suitable for younger students. Take care not to over-ink. The texture should be velvety and matt. If students apply too much ink by mistake, you can reduce the excess by gently wiping the surface of the inked-up block with newspaper. Before working on their final print, students should experiment with the different effects they can get by making marks directly on the block (these will come out white in the final print). The ends of paintbrushes, plastic cutlery, scrunched-up paper, pieces of cloth and other similar utensils can all be used to draw onto the block. Students should then lay a sheet of paper onto the block and apply light pressure using a flat object, such as a piece of wood, by moving it over the back of the paper. This will give a mid-tone. Very dark tones can be added by drawing on the back of the paper to create lines, or by pressing on it with fingers and hands to add solid areas.
An additional activity is monoprinting in colour. This involves laying ink of different colours onto the block at the same time. Students can also add new colours and print again from the same block. Alternatively, three blocks can be used, inked up with yellow, red and blue. They can be worked on and printed in that order onto the same sheet of paper. Further colours will be achieved where they overprint - for example, blue printed over yellow will give green. With both black and white and colour monoprinting, students can paint directly onto the block with ink to create a positive image rather than making negative marks on the plate or drawing through the paper.
As well as preparing cartoons for tapestries, Raphael also made cartoons for large-scale frescoes such as The school of Athens in the Vatican Palace. These, like the designs for the Acts tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, were designed as site-specific works of art. Students might enjoy designing and executing their own paintings for a particular location within their school.
Ask students to make sketches of the overall composition of the scenes depicted in the Acts. They should note how Raphael or the weavers made the different elements of the composition stand out. For example, how is it that figures do not just blend into the background? Another useful exercise would be to ask students as a group to look carefully at one of the scenes for a minute or two. Then ask them what had been going through their minds as they looked. Try and develop their train of thought in a personal direction, making connections with their own lives and concerns. As an example, students from one school who visited the V&A made murals around environmental themes inspired by the landscapes that form the background of many of the Acts.
Back at school students should work together in teams, much as Raphael would have worked with his assistants. Each team should decide what the theme for their mural will be before individual students make their own drawings. These can be combined by photocopying, cutting and pasting elements from them to try out different compositions. Students can copy the final compositions onto acetate sheets and project them onto the surface to be painted, using an overhead projector in order to get them to the right scale. The outlines should be copied in pencil and colour and tone added with acrylic paints. It is a good idea to varnish the mural once finished to protect its surface.
Batik is a medium which reflects the painterliness of the Acts cartoons. It also has the advantage of being a relatively fast medium with which to create large-scale textile hangings, while also having the potential to create fine detail and decoration.
Ask students to do drawings from the cartoons or tapestries that focus on colour and shading. Soft pastels are a good medium to try. If you are looking at tapestries, ask students to show in their drawings how the weavers have managed the transition between different colours - are there solid blocks of adjacent colours or do they merge with a comb-like line? With the cartoons, record the way Raphael has used light and dark shades of the same colour to create an impression of three-dimensionality.
Back at school students should start by practising the techniques of batik on a detail from one of their drawings. Use small pieces of cotton for this. It is particularly important to have a good quality 'tjantings', the tools used for drawing onto the cotton with wax, as well as an electric, thermostatically-controlled pot for melting the wax. The tjantings are dipped in the hot wax for 5-10 seconds to warm them so that the wax stays liquid and does not block the tjantings's spout when drawing. After the image has been drawn in wax, students can dip-dye the bits of fabric using cold water dye in plastic trays. The waxing and dyeing sequence is repeated to build colour up in layers, starting with the lightest colour. When all waxing and dyeing is complete and the fabric is dry, students should iron it between sheets of newspaper to remove all the wax.
On then large hangings, students can work as groups. Individuals might work on larger motifs which are sewn together. The background is worked on by the whole group using a mixture of dip-dyeing and painting on dye with large, soft brushes. Padding out figures and architectural elements gives them definition. Students should add wadding under the part they want to pad, then sew round it, attaching it to a piece of backing fabric. A sewing machine is useful for this and for other long bits of sewing, though students may find curves easier to do by hand. A border could be made from some of the small trial pieces produced at the outset. Finally, the completed hanging should be backed with lining fabric.