London: It`s not every day that a museum pulls together a truly historic show, but London`s Victoria & Albert Museum has done just that: For the first time since their creation, tapestries conceived by Renaissance artist Raphael for the Sistine Chapel are sharing a room with the design drawings from which they were woven, the famous "Raphael cartoons".
"This is remarkably exciting," V&A senior curator of paintings Mark Evans told ARTINFO. "No living person has ever been able to compare the tapestries directly with the cartoons." Scheduled to coincide with Pope Benedict XVI?s state visit to England and Scotland, the exhibition (which runs through October 17) also includes small preparatory drawings for the work, borrowed from the Royal Collection Trust and the Louvre. The whole process is on show, from Raphael’s first ideas — via the large gouache on paper works — to the final tapestries.
These cartoons are, in Evans` words, "colossal machines." More than 16 feet wide and made up of around 200 sheets of paper glued together, they feature extraordinary interpretations of "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes," "Christ’s Charge to Peter," "The Healing of the Lame Man," and "The Sacrifice at Lystra." After Raphael and his team painted them in situ in Rome in 1515, they were then rolled up and sent to Pietr Van Aelst`s studio in Brussels, where they were cut in loom-adapted strips before being turned into silk, wool, and gold tapestries. These were sent back to Rome in 1519 — a few months before Raphael’s death — but the designs remained in Belgium and several monarchs commissioned their own set of tapestries from the weavers. In 1623, Charles I, then Prince of Wales, bought the lot for £300 ($470); the cartoons have been in the Royal Collection ever since, and on permanent loan at the V&A since 1865.
These tapestries are usually kept in the Vatican, and the current exhibition has been partly orchestrated by the Holy See. "We were contacted by the Vatican Museums in February with the offer to lend the tapestries to us to celebrate the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to the UK," said Evans. Considering the art-historical interest of the tapestries’ reunion with the cartoons, this was an offer they couldn’t refuse. The curator told ARTINFO that the Archbishop of Westminster thought it would be fitting to have an exhibition on the occasion of the pontiff’s tour. "These tapestries have a long history of association with great state or religious events," said Evans, "so it’s entirely appropriate that works of this sort should be displayed on what is, after all, a major state event."
Pope Benedict XVI’s tour has sparked a great deal of controversy in the U.K. Beyond debates about the cost of the visit (the bill to taxpayers is estimated at around £20 million or $31.2 million), the anger against the Catholic Church has simmered in the country for months, fueled by the Pope’s declarations on condoms, homosexuality, women priests, and what has been considered a weak response to his church`s child abuse scandal. With a special display made to coincide with the religious leader’s visit, the institution runs the risk of being seen as endorsing the Vatican’s policies. The show is a unique opportunity to see the tapestries and cartoons side by side — but one hopes the grand Renaissance gesture won`t serve to sweep the very contemporary political issues under the run.