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Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, V&A, review
The V&A’s show offers a unique chance to see the originals and the tapestries that they inspired.

By Richard Dorment

Whether used to describe a painting, sculpture, or piece of music, the word “classical” means “of the highest class” – the most perfect embodiment of the medium’s formal and expressive potential. In Western art there are no purer examples of the classical style than the 10 cartoons (preparatory designs) painted by Raphael and his assistants between 1516 and 1521 for Pope Leo X and then woven into tapestries which hung on the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Acquired by King Charles I in 1623, these supreme manifestations of the High Renaissance ideal have been on continuous public display in this country since 1699 – first at Hampton Court Palace, and then, from 1865, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. For the next three weeks four of the original tapestries will be on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit to Britain of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI. It is a one-off event. Nothing like this has happened before. Not even Raphael saw his cartoons hanging alongside the tapestries (and it is safe to say that if he had done so, he’d have been furious – but I’ll come to that in a minute.)

First, what’s so great about the cartoons? Why all the fuss? After all, they inspired 400 years of academic painting, both good and bad, and this has rendered Raphael’s inventions so familiar to most of us that the nobility of his original conceptions and the classical principles they embody have been reduced to clichés.

Standing before one of the cartoons it may take a moment to rediscover the visual genius of Raphael’s designs – how seamlessly he fuses form and content, how in each composition dramatic meaning is inherent in the design, and how every note of visual emphasis (a gesture, a pose, a colour) is used to drive the narrative forward.

In the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, for example, after marvelling at the beauty of the draughtsmanship and the unity, balance and rhythm of the composition the viewer needs to study each face and gesture separately to understand how each of the apostles responds to the miracle – St Peter with adoration, St Andrew with amazement, and the others, fishing from a second barque and unaware that their submerged nets are heavy with their catch – indifference. For all its solemnity and austerity, the composition is enlivened with wonderfully naturalistic herons, birds in flight, seashells, crustaceans and wet, slithery fish.

In Christ’s Charge to St Peter, Raphael is like a film or stage director who choreographs the movements of actors in a crowd scene so that each is integrated into the whole and yet each retains his individual personality.

Without a wasted movement or extraneous detail the viewer understands exactly what is happening. Order, clarity, economy, and discipline – a comparison in the theatre would not be to Shakespeare but to Racine.

Raphael’s figures are conceived on a monumental scale. The muscular apostles are perfect specimens of heroic, idealised humanity at each stage of life, from youth to old age. In both compositions Raphael isolates the figure of Christ to convey the idea that His power comes not from physical strength but from the spirit within. In both designs the figures move like a gentle wave from right to left where, near the edge of the canvas, the swell is stopped by the still figure of Christ.

Knowing that his composition would be woven into tapestry, Raphael avoids dramatic spatial recession and one point perspective, instead placing all of his figures close to the foreground plane, as in a classical relief sculpture. I’ve concentrated on these two earliest and best known of the cartoons because Raphael himself was largely responsible for their execution. Art historians happily argue over how much of Raphael’s “hand” is discernable in the other cartoons and how much of the actual drawing and painting he left to his two principal studio assistants, Giulio Romano and Perino del Vaga.

Turning from the cartoons to the tapestries is like switching from black and white to colour. For centuries the tapestries were only unrolled for display in the Sistine Chapel on special occasions. So although some of the colours have altered (the original lilac of Christ’s robe in Christ’s Charge to Peter is now white) the reds and blues are almost as fresh today as they were 500 years ago.

Then too, the tapestries are woven with gold and silver metallic thread to create a brighter, more sparkling surface than the cartoons. One of the surprises of the show for me is how very different the tapestries are from the cartoons. Visually, the cartoons are more sculptural in effect, the tapestries more painterly (in the sense of being like a flat painting). Instead of the depth and volume you find in the cartoons, the metallic threads used in the tapestries create a surface brilliance, which in turn reminds the viewer of the flatness of the picture plane.

When the tapestries were returned from Brussels, Raphael must have been horrified when he realised that the Flemish weavers had not slavishly copied his designs. Some of the aesthetic decisions made by the weavers feel capricious. Throughout, they changed St Peter’s blue and yellow robes into red and blue. In the cartoon for Christ’s Charge to Peter Christ wears a simple white robe; in the tapestry it’s been changed into a starburst pattern far more appropriate for the iconography of the Virgin Mary. Clearly, the weavers didn’t think it was necessary to write for permission from Rome before making these alterations, and once they’d sent the completed tapestries to the Pope he could hardly have sent them back.

The Raphael cartoons are among the most important works of art in this country, yet for as long as I’ve known them they’ve been very hard to see properly. I’d hoped that this exhibition would at least spur the curators to improve the lighting and display. But no. The installation of the cartoons remains as it was — they are poorly lit, shown behind reflective glass, and hung high on the wall. Because the tapestries reflect light in a way the cartoons don’t, the colours in the cartoons look so dull you want to shine a torch on them. What’s more, Raphael made the cartoons for tapestries he knew would hang almost at floor level, so why aren’t the cartoons shown at the same level? I know that all this takes money, but there is no gallery at the V&A that needs renovation more desperately. If I were a millionaire I’d write the cheque today.

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