Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel at the V&A

The Raphael Cartoons at the V&A are quite impressive works of art in their own right. Roughly four metres wide and three metres high they show scenes from the lives of the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, such as  The Miraculous Draught of Fishes or The Sacrifice at Lystra. They are powerful reminders of the impact these men had on early Christians and of their role in the creation of the Church. They were fishers of men and brought hope to the poor and to the sick. Looking at what has become of their Church now, The Healing of the Lame Man and the other scenes depicted seem to have happened in a different world altogether. But the images are still alive.

With their bright colours barely faded it is hard to believe the cartoons are nearly 500 years old. Commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X and painted by Raphael and his assistants, they are full-scale designs for tapestries at the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Four of these tapestries can now be seen right next to their desgins at the V&A. They are on loan from the Vatican to mark the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain. Whether or not they will help to boost the popularity of the institution to which they belong remains to be seen.

However, what is so impressive about this show at the V&A is that the cartoons and corresponding tapestries probably have not been seen in the same room together since the latter were woven in Brussels. In fact, there are two sets of tapestries. For the then Prince of Wales, and later King Charles I, brought the cartoons to England in 1623 to have his own tapestries made at Mortlake. Charles was a great art collector, but his love for all things popish did not endear him to his protestant subjects.

Anyway, the most interesting thing about the artworks themselves is the opportunity to compare them to each other. There are slight variations between the cartoons and the original tapestries (aside from the fact that they are mirrored) and between the original tapestries and the English set (of course the weavers of Mortlake had not seen the tapestries in the Vatican). For instance, on the cartoon the healed man from the Sacrifice drops his crutch, while the Vatican tapestry shows a discarded wooden leg; and the colours used in the Vatican tapestries are much brighter than their gloomier counterparts of the English version.

It is a shame I did not have more time to study the tapestries next to their cartoons. The V&A make you book your tickets in advance for an allocated time, and I booked mine for 5pm on Thursday evening only to be told as I went in that the museum was about to close in 30 minutes. They did not think that one through. Maybe I  will go back for another look.

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, V&A, London, 8 September – 17 October 2010.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


  1. Dear Gaby,

    I had been wondering about how much time one has to appreciate these works side by side at the V&A. It’s a shame that you were short changed.

    I hope to do better, but then again, I am just grateful they are made available in this way and am grateful to Benedict and the Vatican Museums for making this possible (and I’m not the least bit catholic).

    Actually, I already had the distinct joy to see the tapestries in their natural environment, under Michelangelo’s’ ceiling, this July when on a visit with a tour group there. The Vatican Museum held a special event and we were able to see them hanging, brightly lit, inside the Sistine Chapel with only a few spectators around, a real thrill.

    There are two nice videos I found online, one is on the V&A site and the other is a nice short piece produced by the tour company that took us through Rome and the Vatican this summer: http://www.keyrome.com/?p=2016

    I hope you can enjoy the tapestries a bit more with this digital method!

    Viel Spass!

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