Raphael – Weaving Tapestry Magic for the Sistine Chapel

Sistine Chapel Bright

The glorious Sistine Chapel covered with its images painted by the great Renaissance artsit Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni 1475-1564)

If you ask people today what is the Sistine Chapel many would know it is a place of worship within Vatican city at Rome.

Perhaps they saw it in the movie the Da Vinci Code.

A great percentage of these would also know something about the work of fifteenth century artist Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475 – 1564) in the chapel.

His greatest celebrated contribution to the genre of ‘art above’ is revealed in a series of sensational painted scenes that include the creation story.

They rise up from the top section of the walls of the chapel and cover the ceiling with scenes of stories from the Bible.

Creation Story

The Creation story by Michelangelo (Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni 1475-1564)

The central figure is the renowned image of God reaching out his hand to the first human Adam, whose presence represents the whole of humankind.

Tapestries commissioned by Pope Leo X from Renaissance artist Raphael are displayed at ground level on the walls of the sensationally fresco covered Sistine Chapel, works by Michealangelo Buonorotti in Vatican city

But do they know about the four splendid tapestries, often found hanging on the lower walls of the chapel during great pontifical, or liturgical services?

They were designed by his colleague and one of the Italian Renaissance’s favourite artists Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known simply as Raphael (c1483 – 1520).

The tapestries had a historic state visit to London in September 2010.

They were sent by the present Pope to be exhibited at the V & A Museum.


Self-Portrait Raphael (1483-1520) Oil on Panel, courtesy Uffizi Gallery, Florence

The four were commissioned in 1515 from the artist Raphael (Fafaello Sanzio da Urbino 1483-1520) especially for the Sistine Chapel.

This was the first time in 500 years that the tapestries had hung alongside the original cartoons that Raphael had painted for the weavers so they could  complete this fabulous series of sensational textiles.

There are ten in existence, but some scholars speculate that originally sixteen may have been planned.

From the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries in Europe most rulers or heads of important families were continually on the move. Tapestries were a way of having instant decor.

They added prestige to any setting and practically helped with draughts in stone castles or chateaux, which were evolving with extended periods of peace from places of refuge into being country houses.

Their narrative subjects were very attractive and they usually featured scenes from mythology, from the Bible, or of hunting and court life.

At the time these were manufactured, weaving was considered the most important art form and expression of cultural development. They demonstrated the wealth and status of the ruling families of Italy, Europe and England and, had the advantage of being easily transportable.

The tapestries made for the Sistine Chapel to Raphael’s designs were woven between 1516 and 1521, They are of wool, which has been intertwined with silk and gilt metal wrapped thread. They were made in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst at Brussels the main centre for tapestry production in Europe at that time.

Raphael Tapestry 1

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes c1519 by Raphael, silk and wool with silver-gilt threads, courtesy Musei Vaticani, Vatican

It would have been no mean feat. The weavers would have been constantly challenged working to Raphael’s painted cartoons, without the benefit of being able to enter into any sort of dialogue with the artist himself who had no part in their production.

The technical difficulties were mind boggling and the finished tapestries are a tribute to the level of expertise,  experience and considerable skill the weavers had attained.

One of the reasons Raphael gained the commission is that he had successfully designed the grotesque style painted decoration for architect Donato Bramante’s Gallery in the Vatican Palace .

The painting of the walls and vaults of the loggia were completed by pupils under his supervision and are a highpoint of Renaissance art.

He proved, through his attention to detail an ability to produce a design that could be transmitted to another medium.

The tapestries exist because of one man, Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521) who commissioned them. He knew the richness of these amazing textiles would compliment, and not be overwhelmed by the painted glory perfected by Michelangelo when completing his ‘art above’.

Paul Preaching at Athens (Acts 17: 16-34) In this section of a cartoon Paul preaches before the judicial council of Athens. It also deals with the theme of idolatry, as the listeners stand in front of a pagan statue. V & A Museum London

Born into the famous Medici family at Florence, whose patronage of the arts at Florence the cradle of the Renaissance world, Leo X was already celebrated as a prince of peace and acknowledged as connoisseur of music when he ascended the papal throne.

His classical education had been thorough and included poetry, literature and music alongside theology, philosophy and the ancients.

His love of culture and the arts did not conflict with his worship. And, his interest in the humanities meant that he sought to actively combine, in religious harmony, the past and present while helping to plan the future of the church at Rome.

Part of his role as Pope and leader of the Christian church, as the sun rose on the fifteenth century, was to encourage his countries cultural development. As tapestry was considered societies most prestigious art form it is no surprise he chose to hang them in the Sistine chapel.

The tapestries illustrate scenes from the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul long regarded as the founders of the Christian Church. They were at the source of the Pope’s authority and power.

The Raphael Cartoons were design drawings made up of a mosaic of hundreds of sheets of paper glued together which was then fixed to the wall. Raphael and his assistants would have painted them in situ. Then they would then have been rolled for transport to Brussels to Pietr Van Aelst’s studio where they would have been cut up into strips for use by the tapestry weavers.

In this cartoon Christ tells Peter to cast his net into the water whereupon he and his fellow apostles make a miraculous catch. The story refers to Peter’s role as “fisher of men”, who converts others to Christianity. It also demonstrates his humility as he kneels before Christ to acknowledge His divinity, and confess his own sinfulness. V & A Museum

The tapestries have had a turbulent history. They were pawned to pay for Pope Leo X’s funeral and recovered for the coronation of Hadrian VI (1522-3). They were stolen during the Sack of Rome in 1527, and after many adventures returned to the papal collection between 1544 and 1554.

They were looted again during a French occupation of Rome in 1798 and purchased by a second hand dealer very cheaply. They were bought back again in 1808 and restored to the Vatican collection.

As part of the journey associated with every aspect of the design commission, the cartoons arrived in England after King Charles I paid £300 in 1623 to obtain them.He bought them as designs for tapestries and as painters by his time were being recognized for their individual talents, they would have proved a good investment for the crown.

It was at the end of the seventeenth century when they were framed as paintings in their own right. It was Queen Victoria who sent them along to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1865 and they have been in the public domain ever since.

Originally they had woven borders showing scenes from Leo’s life, also believed to have been designed by Raphael. However the cartoons for these did not survive.

Sistine Chapel 2As Mark Evans who produced the splendidly detailed and scholarly catalogue for the exhibition held at London in 2010 said ‘despite the toll of time those who have the good fortune to admire these beautiful tapestries five centuries after their creation can confirm the challenge to make them was triumphantly met”.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010, 2011, 2015

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