A Heavenly Match; Preparing the Papal Path

Raphael’s Tapestries Return to Sistine Chapel

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ROME, JULY 29, 2010 (Zenit.org).- It was perhaps the greatest reunion I have ever attended.

On the evening of July 14, for one night only, a series of tapestries designed by Raphael in 1519 returned to their rightful home in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s epic ceiling fresco. A sight not seen since 1983, the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s birth.

One of the most moving aspects of the evening was to watch the different branches of the Vatican Museums working in such beautiful concert. The viewing was preceded by a press conference where Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, Arnold Nesselrath, curator of Renaissance art, and Anna Maria DeStrobel, curator of tapestries and fabrics, discussed different facets and aspects of the works in flawless harmony.

This extraordinary evening was made possible by the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, who, under the direction of Legionary of Christ Father Mark Haydu, and the inspiration of Nesselrath, have organized a spectacular exhibit of four Raphael tapestries from the Vatican Museums to be displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London alongside the original designs (called “cartoons”) drawn by Raphael.

The exhibit will open on Sept. 8 to coincide with Benedict XVI’s visit to Great Britain, and will close Oct. 17. The tapestries belong to the papal collections, while the cartoons belong to Queen Elizabeth II, having been purchased in Genoa for 300£ in 1623 by the future King Charles I. They have been on permanent loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1865.

Admission to the exhibit is free of charge thanks to the Patrons of the Arts and in particular Michael and Dorothy Hintze — a reminder of the longstanding generosity in the arts that has marked the Church.

Raphael’s tapestries were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X Medici in the second year of his reign. His predecessor, Julius II, had left posterity Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling and «discovered» Raphael by hiring him to paint the papal apartments. Julius died before Raphael could complete the four rooms, but Pope Leo X, duly impressed, commissioned him to complete the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in a medium that would require a very different set of skills than those Michelangelo had displayed on the ceiling.

Raphael was asked to prepare drawings illustrating the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul to be transformed into a series of tapestries. Working specially prepared paper the same size as the finished product (343 centimeters by 532 centimeters — more than 11 feet by 17 feet), Raphael and his studio executed their designs in mirror image, since tapestries were woven from the back. Raphael had executed several engravings and was therefore accustomed to working in reverse, although in the image of «The Healing of the Lame Man,» St. Peter lifts the paralytic with his right hand in the cartoon (as in Acts 3:7) but in the finished tapestry (one of the four going to the London show), Peter extends his left arm.

The tapestries were woven in Belgium at the studio of Peter van Aelst, then considered the greatest weaver of his age. At seven warps per centimeter, a square foot took a month to weave. For Pope Leo’s tapestries, Aelst employed special threads: silk to get the same color quality as oil paint (now sadly faded) and gold and silver wrapped thread to shimmer especially in the candlelight of the Chapel. Aelst worked hard for his papal patron, producing the first seven by 1519. Another three arrived in 1521 but Leo’s dream of 16 tapestries to cover the lower walls (painted with trompe d’oeil hangings under Pope Sixtus IV) was never to be realized. The cost of these spectacular works was staggering. Raphael was paid 1,000 gold ducats, but the finished product cost 15,000, four times the cost of Michelangelo’s ceiling.

Tapestry cartoons required more detail than most Italian painting of that age, but Raphael rose to the occasion. The tapestry of the Lame Man represents the beautiful gate of the Temple of Jerusalem employing the richly decorated twisting marble columns that surrounded the tomb of St. Peter at the time. The columns parse the narrative perfectly: children tug and scamper on the left, Peter and the paralytic occupy the center, and beggars crowd the right, one with his ragged robe seeming to unravel before one’s eyes.

The most significant of the four tapestries destined for the London show is the «Maiestas Papalis,» where Christ tells St. Peter to “feed my sheep” and “look after my lambs” (John 21:15-17). Jesus is a luminous vision of shining gold and white, his right hand pointing to Peter kneeling at his feet and clutching the keys, while the other indicates to a flock of sheep. The apostles cluster around Jesus and Peter, slightly offset from the center, seeming to react to a gravitational pull from Christ. This image seems tailor-made for Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain. Following his Divine mandate, the successor of Peter will bring nourishment to his starving flock, despite hardship, rejection and in Peter’s case, martyrdom.

The seven completed tapestries were first displayed in the Sistine Chapel on Dec. 26, 1519, to universal awe and amazement. Hanging on the walls, the tapestries seem to widen the room so that visitors appear to witness the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul unfolding before their eyes. Monumentally designed and richly decorated, they achieved the impossible: to draw the eye away from the ceiling and fix one’s gaze straight ahead. For the first time, few people craned their necks to look at Michelangelo, transfixed by Raphael’s parallel world. Michelangelo’s sculptural simplicity reunited with Raphael’s painterly complexity transformed the chapel for one magical night into a visual paradise.

The importance of Raphael’s drawings was immediately recognized. While most cartoons were destroyed in the process of tapestry weaving, eight of Raphael’s 10 survived, despite the fragile nature of the medium. The tapestries had a more complicated fate. Dispersed in 1530, they traveled to Constantinople, Tunisia and France. Several were recouped in Venice, but in the case of the “Death of Ananias,” the tapestry had been quartered and only two parts were ever recovered.

While Raphael lived to see his work hang in the Sistine Chapel, he had no way of knowing that he himself would be dead within four months, killed by a fever at the age of 37. Raphael’s death, followed a year later by Pope Leo’s, signaled the end of the golden age of the Renaissance. While Raphael and Peter van Aelst were toiling away at the tapestries, Martin Luther was penning his 95 Theses that would soon unravel the fabric of Christendom.

These tapestries, the last great work of art of a united Western Church, have never before visited England. In the wake of Benedict’s apostolic constitution “Anglicanorum Coetibus” and its provisions for Anglicans to return to the Catholic Church, Raphael’s cartoons and tapestries are reunited after 500 years.

Their images of Peter and Paul evangelizing side by side make for an eloquent illustration of the Pope’s call to unity.

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These and other truly newsworthy qualities of the upcoming papal visit seem to have been lost on the secular media.

Benedict the Brave, as the Wall Street Journal once dubbed him, will be marching like Daniel into a veritable lion’s den. Feral foes like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are already sharpening their claws to strip the Pontiff’s flesh from bone as he attempts to reach out to Christ’s sheep. How many 83-year-olds would undertake the same daunting mission?

Perhaps some fear is creeping into the hearts of the atheists because of the imminent bea
tification of John Henry Newman, the highest profile convert to Catholicism in the 19th century. Newman went from founding the Oxford movement of High Church Anglicans to becoming one of the greatest intellectuals of the Catholic Church, and four of his works are cited in the Catechism, drafted well before the announcement of his beatification. Given that Newman once held that the Pope was the antichrist, one can see why Dawkins and Hitchens (neither of whom would be described as approaching Newman’s intellectual stature) are antsy about this great convert being raised to the altars.

While obviously a lesser theme, the arrival of the Raphael tapestries highlights the power of beauty to bring about unity. The royal cartoons side by side with the papal tapestries do not underscore the divisions and tragedies that are part of their 500-year history, but rather how human genius and transcendent beauty can draw people together.

After the July 14 press conference, the Vatican Museums remained open to allow the general public to visit the Sistine Chapel and enjoy the exquisite vision of Raphael’s tapestries. A steady stream of tourists flowed into the Chapel mixing with the journalists, members of the Curia, art historians and the more privileged guests, but differences in language, education and station were forgotten as everyone shared in common awe.

We can only hope that courage, conversion and beauty, which have long been the stuff of great literature, may eventually outshine stories of scandal.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

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