The quincentenary of Raphael’s death and an exquisite makeover of the home of some of his most celebrated works – taken together, that’s quite a moment.
The Raphael Court at the V&A has been one of the great destinations for art lovers ever since the artist’s so-called ‘cartoons’ of the Acts of the Apostles were first displayed there in 1950.
For me, it is one of the most glorious and important gallery spaces in London – its square meterage uncannily similar to that of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where the first set of tapestries woven from Raphael’s designs was hung. The set was completed in the year after the artist’s death in 1520, at just 37.
The survival of the cartoons (highly finished drawings on paper made to scale) means that it has been possible to create multiple sets of the tapestries over time, and these in turn have been woven through British history. Though made for a pope (Pope Leo X) to bolster papal authority, Raphael’s designs were coveted by the very king who broke with Rome – Henry VIII. He had his own set of tapestries woven from them. Charles I later acquired seven of the ten cartoons, from which more sets of tapestries could be created. William III celebrated the cartoons as brilliant works of art in their own right, displaying them in a specially designed ‘Cartoon Gallery’ at Hampton Court Palace in the early 18th century. They remain the property of the monarch.
Dr Ana Debenedetti, in her role as Curator of Paintings, oversaw the careful refurbishment of the Raphael Court. In preparation for the gallery’s reopening, she had the idea of making a film to enrich the experience of V&A audiences, providing new perspectives on the cartoons’ history and meaning. The plan was draw out three aspects of these bold visual interpretations of biblical narrative: their artistic brilliance; their historical significance; and their ongoing capacity to inspire viewers now.
It’s exactly these three elements that interest my research team at King’s College London, so I was delighted that Ana suggested we collaborate with her on a film. We have developed a website called The Visual Commentary on Scripture. It’s free, open-access, and already populated with 650 zoomable high-resolution images. The website hosts an ever-growing number of virtual ‘exhibitions’, all of which respond in different ways to scriptural texts – just as so many of Raphael’s major works do. (Indeed, Ana herself has already curated one of our online exhibitions, incorporating Raphael’s cartoon of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes.)
For this half-hour film, Ana and I decided that we would look at the whole set of cartoons, exploring the three dimensions that we shared an interest in: their artistry, their history, and their religious intention and outlook, exploring what impact these things might have on present-day visitors. Three academic specialisms seemed necessary to do justice to the subject! So the film became a conversation in the presence of the cartoons. Ana, as an art historian, discusses the cartoons’ artistic brilliance and innovation. Professor Alec Ryrie, a historian from Durham University, looks at their unfolding historical significance, especially in the UK. And I, as a theologian, bring some thoughts about how they continue to provoke questions that intrigue us today: what do we most revere and why? What would it look like if God was active in human affairs?
This film captures the highlights of an afternoon of lively conversation, and we hope it will help explain why Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles have become some of the UK’s most prized and most influential artistic treasures.