Raphael tapestries go on show in Britain

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Four priceless tapestries designed by the Renaissance master Raphael have gone on display with their original drawings for the first time at an exhibition in London to coincide with Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain.

The fragile artworks -- woven from wool, silk, gold and silver -- were created for the Sistine Chapel and are considered to be among the greatest treasures of the High Renaissance.

The Vatican has never lent four of its Raphael tapestries at the same time before, but agreed to support the exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to mark this month’s papal trip.

The restored works have been hung next to the artist’s full-size preparatory designs, known as the Raphael Cartoons, derived from the Italian word for a large sheet of paper.

Professor Arnold Nesselrath, a director at the Vatican Museums, said it was symbolic to reunite the Catholic Church’s tapestries with the Cartoons, which belong to the queen, head of the Church of England. Britain’s Henry VIII broke with the church in Rome in the 16th century.

“It’s very exciting to do something that’s never been done before,” he said. “This was an ideal match. The pope liked it very much.” The six-week exhibition opens on Wednesday.


Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, the tapestries cost about three and a half times the amount Michelangelo received for painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

“Each tapestry took over a year to weave,” said Mark Evans, a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum. “Tapestry was the most expensive art form then available because of its size and the expense of the material.”

Weavers in Brussels used Raphael’s paper designs to create the intricate tapestries. The finished works were sent to Rome and the royal family bought the Cartoons in 1623.

Raphael’s designs were hugely influential among artists for centuries and by the 18th century were arguably the most famous works of art in the world, Evans added.

The great Italian art historian Vasari described Raphael as a “mortal God” and said his designs for the tapestries were a “miracle rather than a production of human art.”

With subtle colors and intricate detail, they show scenes from the Bible involving St Peter, the first pope, and St Paul, one of the central figures of the early Christian church.

The choice of subjects and the tapestries’ richness were intended to underline the Roman church’s pre-eminence and the pope’s authority. Rulers across Europe were impressed.

“They became a must-have,” Evans said. “The kings of France and England wanted a set, the Duke of Mantua wanted one, but they were extraordinarily expensive.”

Editing by Steve Addison