Two halves of a whole: Raphael's designs, tapestries reunited

Posted by Dan Grippo
Tuesday 20, July 2010 | Category:  

The Vatican Museums and London's Victoria and Albert Museum are bringing together two “long-lost twins,” two halves of an artistic masterpiece conceived by the Renaissance master Raphael, reports Carol Glatz of Catholic News Service.

Some of Raphael's enormous tapestries for the Sistine Chapel and his preparatory paintings, called cartoons in the art world, will be united for the first time in the Sistine Chapel exhibition. Since the Renaissance, "the cartoons and the tapestries have led separate lives" and the Sept 8-Oct. 17 exhibit will bring together "the two halves of the same story," said Mark Evans, senior curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Michelangelo completed the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1512. When Pope Leo X was elected the following year, he wanted to leave his mark on the chapel, but every surface had already been painted. He decided to commission a special set of tapestries for the chapel's lower walls. Tapestries were a popular art form at the time and the church liked to use them for special liturgical ceremonies.

Because the designs would be sent off to famed tapestry artisans in Belgium, Raphael had to color them exactly like a painting so weavers would know what precise hues to use. That unique kind of detail meant the cartoons eventually became prized works of art in and of themselves.

The tapestries depicted the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul and events from the Acts of the Apostles. They also were designed to specifically correspond to the frescoed images of the lives of Moses and Jesus.

In 1623, before becoming king, Charles I of England bought seven of Raphael cartoons. They became, as they are to this day, the property of the British royal family. Coinciding with Pope Benedict's visit to England in September, the exhibit is meant to be a visible sign of the coming together of the two countries' common cultural heritage, said Arnold Nesselrath, director of the Vatican Museums' Byzantine, medieval, and modern collections.

Seeing the cartoons alongside the final product is considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, he said; "it was something not even Raphael ever got to see."

(photo credit: one of Raphael's tapestries hanging from a wall of the Sistine Chapel--CNS)

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