The Sistine Chapel Tapestries were produced from cartoons by Raphael and hung for special occasions.
Only seven of the ten original cartoons, ie the working drawings, produced by Raphael for the Sistine Chapel tapestries survive today. The Raphael Tapestries, as they have since become known, were created during the High Renaissance, and were commissioned around 1515 by Pope Leo X. It is believed that they were completed one year later because a final payment was made to Raphael on December 20th of that year. They were first displayed in the Sistine Chapel during the Christmas celebrations of 1519. It should be remembered, even though Raphael had completed the cartoons for the tapestries, they still had to be woven!
The Sistine Chapel tapestries depicted the Life of Saint Peter and Saint Paul as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Four of the ten original Raphael tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Peter: “The Death of Ananias”, “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, “The Handing Over of the Keys” and “The Healing of the Lame Man”. The six remaining tapestries were dedicated to the life of St Paul: “The Conversion of Saint Paul”, “Saint Paul in Prison”, “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens”, “The Blinding of Elymas the Sorcerer”, “The Sacrifices in Lystra” and “The Stoning of Saint Peter”.
Since both St Peter and St Paul were martyred for their faith, Pope Leo X, who commissioned the series of tapestries, was probably using the tapestries as propaganda. The Sistine Chapel was originally restored by Pope Sixtus IV Della Rovere during the late fifteenth century and Pope Leo X decided to replace the old tapestries of Pope Sixtus IV, showing Christ’s Passion, which were showing the strains of time. As was customary for the period, Pope Leo X also ensured his own coat of arms was included within the borders of the new tapestries. The Brussels workshop of Pieter Van Aelst made the Raphael tapestries, as they did all the tapestries produced for the Vatican. This weaving workshop was thought to be the finest in Europe. The very first set of ten tapestries were always hung in the Sistine Chapel. It is believed that these original Raphael tapestries were burned to retrieve the precious metals woven into them. Later, several other sets of the same tapestries would be woven including a set for Francois I, King of France, and for the English King, Henry VIII. The most recent new sert was created during the eighteenth century. In 1983, the complete set was again displayed at the Sistine Chapel.
The Raphael Cartoons are as famous as the tapestries for which they were made. (They were, in effect, the prototypes for the tapestries, paintings from which the tapestries were woven.) There were ten tapestry cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X although, originally, the Sistine Chapel tapestries were to be a sixteen piece set.
As Raphael knew, the Sistine Chapel tapestries would be directly compared to the famous Sistine Chapel ceiling thought by many to be the greatest masterpiece by Michelangelo. The ceiling had only been completed around two years beforehand. Also, there must have been the added pressure of knowing that Michelangelo actually disliked Raphael. However, regardless of how famous and revered the Sistine Chapel ceiling has become, the admiration for the Sistine Chapel tapestries and the cartoons from which these were made has earned them acclaim worldwide.
The cartoons for these tapestries do not have the same intricate detail for which Raphael is famous within his paintings. This is because Raphael understood that preparatory cartoons for tapestry wall-hangings need bold composition, not fine detail. A tapestry is always worked on from the reverse side so therefore the Sistine Chapel tapestries are also a reverse image of Raphael’s cartoons. The cartoons are just over three metres high, and between three and five metres wide.
Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestries were painted, with glue distemper, onto many layers of paper which were also glued together. Today, the cartoons have been mounted onto canvas and are permanently displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Records show that Raphael was paid one thousand ducats for these cartoons. The tapestries themselves cost much more to produce, fifteen thousand ducats. Therefore, the Sistine Chapel tapestries cost five times more than the ceiling, a huge sum of money for the day.
Raphael seemed to understand many aspects of tapestry production: reducing detail, emphasising structure and composition. Even so, the tapestries were subtle with regards to colour, like his paintings. It must be remembered, Raphael was not a tapestry artist but was commissioned to produce cartoons for a set of tapestries. Simply because tapestry weavers were capable of producing more colour tones does not mean that he would use them just for the sake of it. Raphael had his own sensitivity and it was this acute perceptiveness that made him one of the great masters.
Charles I bought the cartoons when still the Prince of Wales, not yet King. He was rather flighty about the purchase and used an agent to secure the cartoons for the low price of three hundred pounds. The resulting tapestries were woven for Charles in Mortlake by the River Thames on a low warp loom for five hundred pounds. Afterwards, the cartoons were placed in storage at the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall. Somewhat curiously, and thankfully, Oliver Cromwell did not sell off the Raphael cartoons. However, three of them did go amiss at this time. The cartoons Raphael produced for the Sistine Chapel tapestries have been studied by many artists over time and played a role in the development of English art, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they were described as “the Parthenon sculptures of modern art”.