Beautiful designs for beautiful tapestries
While cartoons in the United States usually refer to humorous or satirical drawings, in the Renaissance era cartoons meant something quite different: preliminary sketches that served as studies for future work, or may – be works to be transferred to another medium.
Raphael’s caricatures, in this case preparatory sketches for tapestries, are some of the greatest examples of High Renaissance art found in Europe outside of Rome. They are in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London and are my personal favourites; I have visited the exhibition dozens of times, the last time in March this year.
The pieces are a set of seven large-scale designs for the tapestries, the only surviving pieces from the original set of 10 cartoons. Painted by Raphael (1483-1520), they were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X, born Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, son of the great patron Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The pope wanted them for his private chapel, also known as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Evidence suggests that Raphael began drafting the designs in 1514. The work was completed between June 1515 and December 1516, as suggested by the first and last payments the Vatican made to Raphael.
Attention to detail
Raphaël, who was at the peak of his career, began with drafts and character sketches, using members of his entourage as models. He was well aware that these tapestries would be seen up close by the elite members of society, and it was of utmost importance to focus on extreme detail. He was also aware that his rival Michelangelo would see the work.
In the cartoon “The Miraculous Project of Fish”, the scene shows men fishing in the Lake of Gennesaret (also known as the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias). They carry an abundance of marine life on board, including sardines, eels, shellfish and a shark; crows fly overhead, a disturbing sign of human sin; the cranes are on the shore. Jesus, Peter and Peter’s brother, Andrew, look on, all crowned with halos. Jesus raises his hand and, according to the biblical reference, declares: “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will take men.
Either Pope Leo X, who commissioned the cartoons, or the poet Tommaso Fedra Inghirammi, a close friend of Raphael, is depicted wearing a red hat in “Paul Preaching in Athens” to the left of the Paul figure. A statue of Ares, the god of war, is on the far right. Raphael placed Ares’ back facing Paul to show the new religion of Christianity overpowering the old beliefs of polytheism.
Like the pieces of a mosaic, each design had many sections, and when completed the designs were rolled up and transported to Pieter van Aelst’s studio in Brussels. From there, the upholsterers sewed with silk and gold thread, weaving on low-chain looms. Van Aelst’s workshop also made duplicates of the original drawings to serve as guides. Weavers worked in reverse and created images that would be reversed in their final form.
This arduous process took three years and the finished tapestries were delivered to the Vatican between December 1519 and December 1521. It is likely that Raphael oversaw and supervised the installation of the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.
Sketch with a message
The lives of the apostles Peter and Paul are the subject of caricatures and, eventually, tapestries. The tapestries, “The Charge of Christ to Peter” and “The Miraculous Catch”, show Paul’s connection to Christ. “The Death of Ananias” and “The Healing of the Lame” describe miracles; and “The Conversion of the Proconsul”, “The Sacrifice at Lystra”, and “Paul Preaching in Athens” describe key elements of Paul’s life.
The tapestries conveyed a particular message: Peter and Paul founded the Christian Church and their mission was to convert the world to Christianity.
Using the scriptures as a guide, the pope decided on the topics Raphael was responsible for conveying. “The Charge of Christ to Peter” was taken from the books of Matthew and John; “The Miraculous Project of Fishes”, was taken from the Book of Luke; ‘The Death of Ananias’, ‘The Healing of the Lame’, ‘The Conversion of the Proconsul’, ‘The Sacrifice at Lystra’ and ‘Paul Preaching in Athens’ are all taken from the book of Acts.
Debates have persisted over the amount of caricatures that Raphael painted himself. Although the creation of cartoons and tapestries required the collaborative efforts of many artisans, like most large-scale works produced during the Renaissance, Raphael designed and supervised their execution. According to the V&A, “it is evident that he was directly responsible for the overall composition and most of their execution, supervising and harmonizing the occasional interventions of his assistants”.
Prince Charles (later King Charles I) purchased the works in Genoa, Italy, and brought them to England.
Once these cartoons were in England at the Mortlake Tapestry Factory, copies of the sets were made, and the cartoons then influenced the powerful, famous and wealthy in Europe. Many of the tapestries created were commissioned by aristocrats for their country homes and for collectors, royals and church officials in continental Europe.
Revered works of art
The tapestries survived the execution of King Charles in 1649 and remained intact in the royal collection. It seems that Cromwell, who had the king executed, had a soft spot for Raphael’s art and tapestries. Rumor had it that Cromwell had taken an interest in the tapestry factories at Mortlake.
After the restoration of the monarchy, William III hired the architect Christopher Wren to design a new gallery for the tapestries at Hampton Court. The tapestries moved between royal residences (Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Hampton Court) between 1763 and 1865.
Eventually the tapestries made their way to the V&A via Queen Victoria. Her husband, Prince Albert, had devoted much energy to collecting Raphael’s art, and he pioneered a strong collection of the Renaissance artist. In 1865 Victoria made a long-term loan of the tapestries to the V&A to honor Albert.
The tapestries have remained at the V&A since Queen Victoria’s original bequest.
Raphael’s cartoons are on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, room 48a, on loan to the V&A by the Queen since 1865.