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Pope’s woven treasures in South Ken

14 September 2010

Nicholas Cranfield on the Raphael tapestries show at the V&A


FOR the state visit of James VI and I to his northern kingdom in 1617, the only return he ever made to Scotland once he had ascended the English throne in 1603, wooden statues of apostles and angels were carved for the wainscoting of the royal chapel at Holyroodhouse, causing outrage and bewilderment.

I never imagined I might think that his successor, our present Sov­ereign, would ever miss a trick, but I was put in mind of this earlier con­troversial redecoration programme by the forthcoming state visit of Pope Benedict XVI; for the Queen owns seven of the ten designs for the remarkable tapestries (the so-called Acts of the Apostles series) that Raphael undertook in 1515-16 for Pope Leo X, while the Pope owns the tapestries themselves.

Surely, it would have been a coup to hold the state banquet in the V&A itself, if the cartoons are too fragile to transport, or to hang them in Holy­roodhouse to greet the Pontiff. Rather, His Holiness has sent four of the Sistine tapestries to be seen alongside the cartoons that have been on extended loan to the V&A since 1865.

Raphael was originally commis­sioned to produce 16 tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, to hang beneath his rival Michelangelo’s ceiling, so replacing an ill-assorted collection of 47 earlier wall hangings. For some reason, he submitted finished de­signs for only ten, which were then despatched to the looms in Brussels.

Cost and production time may have been weighty considerations. Leo’s tapestries were reputed to have cost between 1600 and 2000 ducats each, so that the whole series would have cost more than five times the amount that, according to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo had been paid for the ceiling. It is likely that a set of even six large tapestries might take some 30 weavers about a year to produce.

The London cartoons remained in Brussels for a long time. Other series were later woven from them, in­cluding one set for Henry VIII, who found his own reasons for wishing to identify himself with St Paul over and against purported Petrine authority after the break with Rome.

In 1623, James I’s son Charles acquired them, probably with a view to having them woven at the royal tapestry works established by his father at Mortlake. It was only at the end of the 17th century that the panel strips into which the weavers had cut the drawings were sewn together, and they were shown as art in their own right.

And what a statement they make for High Renaissance Italian form and design; for the cartoons themselves are highly finished works of art, and have influenced many.

The Pope has chosen three of the Petrine tapestries (The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (John 21), the Charge to Peter (Matthew 16), the only two Gospel scenes, and The Healing of the Lame Man (Acts 3.1- 8), with the rather more obscure Sacrifice at Lystra (Acts 14.13). He must be hoping that his addresses will not be as wilfully misunderstood among the pagans as the priests so readily misrepresented Paul and Barnabas.

This unique chance to see the cartoons side by side with the first set of tapestries woven in Raphael’s lifetime is not to be missed. It is a privilege that neither Pope Leo nor Raphael himself ever came to enjoy. The tapestries themselves have long since been taken down from the walls of the Sistine Chapel, and are now only rarely ever shown there. I hope that Her Majesty plans to make it back from Balmoral in time to catch a glimpse of them together.

“Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel” is at V&A South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7, until 17 October (free, timed ticket entry). Phone 020 7942 2000. www.vam.ac.uk

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