Monday, July 19, 2010

Raphael in the Sistine Chapel - A Unique Exhibition in London

On the occasion of the Holy Father’s visit to England in September, the Vatican Museums and the Victoria and Albert Museum of London have put together what promises to be one of the most interesting artistic exhibitions in recent memory. Four tapestries designed by Raphael for use in the Sistine Chapel will be loaned to the V&A, and displayed alongside the original preparatory cartoons which were used to make them. The four tapestries are part of a larger series of ten, which are kept nowadays in the Painting Gallery of the Vatican Museums, in a room specially dedicated to the works of Raphael. The preparatory cartoons have been the property of the royal family of England since 1623, when they were acquired by the Prince of Wales, shortly before his accession to the throne as King Charles I; they have been on permanent loan to the V&A since 1865.

Raphael's cartoon of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, from the Victoria and Albert Museums.

On Wednesday, July 14, at a press conference given in the Sala Regia, (the room immediately behind the Sistine Chapel), Dr. Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, along with his colleagues, Drs. Arnold Nesselrath and Anna Maria de Strobel, gave the formal presentation of the upcoming exhibition, along with an explanation of the history of these famous tapestries. Afterwards, those who were in attendance were given the unique opportunity to see several of the tapestries hung in the space they for which they were first created. The last time they were placed on display in the Sistine was in 1983, as part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s birth.

Lucky admirers of Raphael see his tapestries in the Sistine Chapel for the first time in almost 30 years. Pictured is the tapestry of the Healing of the Lame Man at the Beautiful Gate (Acts 3).

Three more tapestries, displayed beneath paintings by Perugino, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio.

The full-sized preparatory designs on heavy paper, called “cartoni – large papers” in Italian, (whence the English “cartoon”), were produced by Raphael for Pope Leo X, in the years 1515 and 1516. A young and prodigiously talented artist from Urbino, only 32 at that point, Raphael had already been in Rome for a number of years. Under the previous Pope, Julius II, (whose grand projects included the rebuilding of Saint Peter’s Basilica), he was one of several famous painters hired to decorate a new set of Papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace. Julius was so pleased with what he saw in the beginning of Raphael’s work that he fired all of the other of the painters, and engaged him to do the entire project on his own. While Raphael was still working on the second of four rooms, however, Julius died in February of 1513, barely four months after Michelangelo had completed the re-decoration of the Sistine Chapel’s vaulted ceiling. (Pictured right - self portrait of Raphael from his early teens.)

His successor, Card. Giovanni de’ Medici, elected at the age of only 37, and the
last non-priest to be elected Pope, was a member of the famous family who had de facto ruled over Florence for much of the Renaissance. His father Lorenzo is usually referred to as “the Magnificent”, for the arts and the sciences flourished amazingly in Florence during his lifetime, due in no small degree to his patronage. As Pope Leo X, his son continued the traditions of his family and his papal predecessors in spectacular generosity to the arts, along with very considerable charitable works. While painters, poets and sculptors flocked to Rome, Raphael was appointed “Conserver of the Roman Antiquities”, a sort of superintendent of Pontifical works; under the Leo’s patronage, he ran a combination workshop-and-school, with literally dozens of artists to assist him on countless commissions for the Pope and others. (Pictured right - Raphael's portrait of Pope Leo X with two cardinals. On the left is the Pope's cousin, Giulio de' Medici, the future Clement VII, and on the right, Luigi de' Rossi.)

Raphael knew full well that his tapestries, although movable, and therefore capable of being shown anywhere, would most frequently be seen in the Sistine Chapel, the religious center of the Papal court. This meant that they would also be displayed next to some of the finest frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, not only those on the ceiling, finished just 3 years before by Michelangelo, but also a whole series of elaborate panels, executed on the walls of the chapel more than 30 years earlier, by some of the best painters of the later fifteenth-century.
Part of the right wall of the Sistine Chapel. From the bottom: painted draperies in silver and gold, with the crest of Pope Sixtus IV; two scenes from the Life of Christ, left side by Perugino and Signorelli, right side by Cosimo Rosselli; four sainted Popes. At the top, a few of the hundreds of figures added by Michelangelo to the upper part of the chapel between 1508 and 1512. Raphael's tapestries were made to cover the bottom stages.

Many artists would balk at such an intimidating prospect, but not Raphael. In an age in which imitation was considered the very essence of art, which is to say, the imitation of the classical past, no-one had a keener eye for seeing what was good about the styles of other artists, taking it into his own, and improving upon it. The tapestries show his complete mastery of the figures of his teacher Perugino, for example, one of the original painters of the Sistine; other images are clearly based on the newer style of Michelangelo. A colleague pointed out to me, as we discussed the position of the tapestries and their relationship to the paintings above them, that they are indeed so absorbing that Raphael is effectively keeping the viewer’s eyes away from his rival’s famous ceiling.

The Handing of the Keys to St. Peter, by Perugino and Signorelli, painted in the Sistine Chapel in 1482.

"Pasce oves meas - Feed my Lambs." (John 21) Raphael's preparatory design for a tapestry, from the V&A. Notice that the figures of Christ and Peter are very similar to the same figures in the work by his teacher Perugino shown above.

The finished tapestry, displayed in the Sistine Chapel. In the process of transfer from cartoon to tapestry, the image is reversed. Other changes can also be made, as with the color of some of the garments.

St. Paul delivered from the prison at Philippi by an earthquake, (Acts 16), here represented as a large human figure. The tapestry is made to fill the wall-space between the cantors' balcony and the marble screen which divides the chapel into two parts.

The muscular figure of the earthquake owes much to the powerful, sculptural style of Michelangelo's paintings.

The original plan called for a total of sixteen tapestries, with eight scenes each from the life of Saint Peter and that of Saint Paul. Once the preparatory cartoons were ready, they were sent to Brussels, to be woven into tapestries in the workshop of Peter van Aelst, known at the time as one of the finest such workshops in Europe. The first seven were delivered in 1519, and Pope Leo was so extraordinarily pleased with them that he decided to display the set, though less than half completed, in the Sistine for the Mass of St. Stephen’s day. In his diary, the Master of Papal Ceremonies, Paride de Grassis, notes the universal admiration, and indeed astonishment, with which they were received. De Grassis himself says that while the motto of the Papal Chapel at the Lateran, the Sancta Sanctorum, was “Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus – there is no holier place in all the world,” that of the Sistine was now “Non est aliquod in orbe nunc pulcherius – Now there is nothing in the world more beautiful.”

Three more tapestries were completed and sent to Rome within two years, but, with the premature deaths of both Raphael in 1520, and of Leo X the following year, the project came to a halt, and the remaining six were never finished. It should be remembered that although the frescos of Raphael and Michelangelo are now the main attraction at the Vatican Museums, in their time, and long after, tapestry was in some ways a more prestigious medium, and in every way, vastly more expensive. Between the monies paid to Raphael for the design, and the cost of the actual weaving, Leo X paid greater than five times as much for the completed tapestries as Julius II had paid Michelangelo for the whole painting of the Sistine ceiling.

The cartoons remained in Brussels, and enjoyed as great a fortune as the tapestries in Rome; they were studied and imitated by many artists, among them Albrecht Dürer, while new sets of tapestries from the same designs were later executed for several courts, including those of England, Spain, and the duchy of Mantua. Eventually, they were bought by the Prince of Wales, the future Charles I, and yet another set executed; the Victoria and Albert show will also include a version of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes woven at the tapestry-works at Mortlake. For those who are traveling to London, the show at the Victoria and Albert will provide a unique opportunity to see one of the greatest artists to ever work in Rome, in his one of his finest moments; even Raphael himself never saw both the cartoons and the finished tapestries together.

The Raphael tapestries, the preparatory designs, and related items will be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London from September 8 to October 17 of this year. Admission to the V&A is free.

On Friday, September 17th, the London Oratory and the V&A will present a private viewing of the Raphael show, together with a concert in the Oratory of sacred music from the Roman school, performed by the Choir of the London Oratory, directed by Patrick Russill, with organist John McGreal.

The concert will be at 7.00pm, and the private viewings will be 5.30pm-6.45pm and 8.30pm-9.45pm. Tickets (unreserved) are £18 (concert and viewing) and £15 (concert only), available only through the V&A Bookings Office.

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