Reflected glory

London, April

In the Victoria and Albert Museum, the cool old-fashioned gallery that contains the Raphael Cartoons is an oasis of hush. There are four other people in the high-ceilinged room; all, like me, on their own. Around the walls the seven luminous paintings of the lives of the saints Peter and Paul, vivid scenes alive with muscular figures, have the gentle glow of watercolour. After a bit one’s eye acclimatises and the subdued beauty of these works begins to grow. Each is three metres high and five or six metres wide, their figures a little more than life size: we can walk into these scenes.

This quiet will not last. These “cartoons”, completed in 1515-16, were designs for seven of the 10 tapestries woven for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican; and next month, as Pope Benedict XVI makes his visit to England and Scotland, four of the Sistine tapestries will be sent from Rome to be displayed here, next to the paintings that are their templates, for the first time.

For the moment, though, my footsteps echo in the room. From the gallery next door, there are bursts of excited chatter from the eager crowd visiting an exhibition of Grace Kelly’s dresses. They are looking at an actress’s frocks; we are looking at great serene tableaux that for several centuries have been considered some of the greatest works of the High Renaissance.

It’s a postmodern sort of juxtaposition, perhaps, but Raphael himself would have understood about visual fashion and its changing currents. He was a pragmatic artist. He had arrived in Rome as a 25-year-old in 1508, and when he painted these “Lives of the Saints” to the commission of Pope Leo X in 1513-16 he was making religious work in a very worldly context, and in an atmosphere of fierce competition.

Michelangelo had finished his magnificent ceiling for the Sistine Chapel only three years earlier, commissioned by Julius II, and Raphael had his chance to measure up to his rival. Michelangelo loathed Raphael, who was eight years younger and already very successful; he had a highly productive studio employing 50 assistants, and had already carried out the great frescoes of the Papal apartments of the Vatican, including his masterpiece “The School of Athens”.

The rivalry between Pope Julius and his successor was as intense as that between the artists. When Julius died in 1513, it was the new pope’s chance to make his mark as a patron, and he played to the fashions of the moment. In the early 16th century tapestry was one of the most highly regarded art forms, so expensive to manufacture that it was the preserve of popes and princes and the richest nobles. The 10 Sistine tapestries were to be Leo’s monument, and Raphael’s creations did indeed cost almost five times as much as Michelangelo’s ceiling.

I gaze at a heron. The long legs of three waterbirds gleam through the reedy shallows in front of a boat where Jesus shows his disciples, earnest burly fishermen with gnarled hands “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, a homely vision in translucent blues and intense flesh tones. Across the room, in “Healing of the Lame Man”, women breast-feed their pudgy babies under twisted classical columns; a great soft-eyed cow awaits its fate in “The Sacrifice at Lystra”. The three tapestries made from these cartoons will be travelling to London, together with “Christ’s Charge to Peter”, the representation of the biblical passage that forms the scriptural basis for the papacy. Yet these dramatic scenes have a domestic quality that seems at odds with the pomp and circumstance of their original home, more fitted to this silent brown Victorian gallery than to the dazzling richness of the Vatican walls.

Rome, July

Along a hundred yards of pavement outside the Vatican, people are queuing four deep in the pounding summer heat. Inside, the press of bodies trudging doggedly past frescoes and statues, Madonnas and miracles, is like the London Underground at rush hour, and just about as edifying. There is no air conditioning. The queues for the Sistine Chapel are held behind ropes in bunches at intervals along a great hallway, like the waves of runners at the start of a marathon. As we duck under a silky red rope and walk through, a woman in trainers shoots me a look of pure hatred.

In a large low-lit space where spotlights pick out Raphael’s peerless painting of the “Transfiguration of Christ”, the floor-to-ceiling glass vitrines around the walls are empty. The Raphael tapestries usually housed here are already gone – some to the restoration workshops, some in readiness for the event we have come to watch.

For the first time in 27 years, some of the tapestries are to be hung in the chapel for which they were made. It’s a rare occasion and even Vatican regulars are excited. In 1983, to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s birth, these precious objects were brought from their museum cases and hung on the hooks that have been there for almost half a millennium: no one can remember the time before that. In fact they were always intended to hang only on special occasions; when the finished tapestries were delivered to Rome from Brussels, from the master-weavers of Pieter van Aelst’s workshops, the first seven were put up in the Sistine Chapel in time for Christmas 1519.

Today is Wednesday and, in good Italian fashion – despite the eager hundreds still sweating at the gates – the Vatican is to close for the afternoon. The human floodtide ebbs like water draining from a sink, and one after another the mighty rooms are stilled and emptied, their cupids and caryatids writhing and cavorting to nobody.

Outside, in one of the Vatican courtyards, the shade of a café table umbrella hardly dims the lunchtime heat. Father Mark, sitting opposite me, takes a slim mobile from the pocket of his immaculate habit and purrs a few orders to distant gatekeepers. He is ridiculously handsome, a milk-fed blond from Ohio who looks like an unlikely extra in a Vatican-set thriller. And this charm is put to good use: his role is to co-ordinate the Friends of the Vatican Museum, fundraising groups around the world whose donations help to maintain its treasures. The English arm of the organisation, and notably its chief benefactor, hedge fund mogul Michael Hintze, is funding the tapestries’ loan to the V&A, as well as restoration work. As Father Mark sips his iced tea, I struggle to do a sum in my head: given that a single Raphael drawing sold for £29m earlier this year, what might the insurance estimate of four tapestries be? I give up.

Father Mark leads us on a brisk journey through high deserted corridors, past stripey-pantalooned Swiss guards. The Sistine Chapel is deserted, though brilliantly lit. The figures in Michelangelo’s great busy “Last Judgement” are still squirming and writhing and tumbling through clouds, while the huge serene ceiling glows overhead. Along the top tier of the walls run the brilliant frescoes by the early band of Tuscan masters who did their work just after the chapel was completed in 1480 – this must be the only place in the world where superb works by such as Botticelli and Ghirlandaio are almost sideshows. Below them, along the second tier, run the frescoed “Stories of Moses” along one side, the “Stories of Christ” along the other. It’s the bottom tier of the three that holds the tapestries.

Up at the altar end of the chapel, beneath one of Michelangelo’s particularly vicious serpents, five hard-hatted workmen are assembling a scaffolding tower just as the first tapestry arrives, rolled up like an enormous carpet and marched in by six young women restorers, whose identical white lab coats and bright orange trainers make them look as if they are about to break into a dance routine.

Through the long afternoon, the light falls across the masterpieces around us. Slowly the tapestries and borders go up, the curators in a wincing agony of concern for their fragility. Four are to be hung today, not the whole set of 10: that would take too long, and some are not in good enough condition. They will be here for only a day: this evening the public will be allowed in to see them. Part of the point of today’s exercise is to address a scholarly dispute about where each was originally designed to go: do the six scenes from the life of St Paul hang on the left wall beneath frescoes of the life of Moses, and the four of St Peter on the right-hand wall beneath Perugino’s scenes from the life of Christ? Or, as some scholars now contend, the other way round? Were there originally plans for 16, not 10, in the set? The discussions rumble quietly on. What about the way the shadows fall? What about the fact that the chapel’s choir screen was moved? I’ve stopped listening: this is a moment for the eyes and the senses, not the brain. And when an Italian camera crew arrives and turns off the chapel’s electric lights to adjust its own lighting, for almost the first time in living memory we can see the Sistine Chapel as it was intended to be: lit only by upward shafts from the high windows, every tier of its walls covered by almost impossible riches.

London, August

This time, there is only one other person in the V&A’s Raphael gallery. These gorgeous works now seem like old friends: much travelled, hardened survivors. We have seven cartoons; no one knows what happened to the other three; but it is extraordinary that any of them made it down the centuries. Each was made up of hundreds of sheets of paper glued together and painted in distemper, and then cut into strips a metre wide to fit under the horizontal looms the Belgium masterworkers used.

They worked on the tapestry from the back, so that tapestry and cartoon are mirror images. Woven in wool, with highlights of silk and even gold and silver thread, reflecting in exquisite detail the colours, light and shade of the original, the work was highly skilled, more akin to embroidery than weaving. Weavers even had their specialities: one was known for foliage, another for the feathers of the prancing water-birds, the most prestigious being those who could reproduce the subtleties of flesh.

More than one set of tapestries could be made from the cartoons, of course. A second set was made for François I of France (during the French Revolution it was melted down to recover the silver and gold in the thread), and a third in 1542 for Henry VIII of England (this perished in another conflagration, in Berlin in 1945). In 1623, more than a century after they left Raphael’s hands, the cartoons were still in strips when England’s King Charles I (then Prince of Wales) bought them and had a set of tapestries woven for himself at workshops in Mortlake, west of London.

Another civil war could easily have claimed these too, but when Oliver Cromwell took power in England in 1653, surprisingly he did not destroy or sell either the tapestries or the cartoons along with the rest of Charles I’s fine art collection. The Puritan dictator seems to have appreciated these images from the home of the papacy: the muscular simplicity of the biblical scenes must have transcended doctrinal differences.

Apart from Charles’s tapestries, several sets made in Mortlake still exist in British collections, notably that of Scotland’s Duke of Buccleuch. But by the end of the 17th century the taste for tapestries was waning, and the cartoons came into their own as independent masterworks. In 1690 the strips were reassembled and backed on canvas, as the artist had probably intended (although made to be reproduced in mirror-image, Raphael included tomb inscriptions with lettering the right way round – a giveaway). Thanks to print-making, his designs were widely known to artists and art-lovers as icons of the High Renaissance, their cool classicism an antidote to over-excited Baroque.

The cartoons also achieved such fame for the simple reason that they were on public display. In 1699 William III commissioned Christopher Wren to build a gallery devoted to the Raphaels at Hampton Court that was open to the public; when Queen Victoria created the V&A, she decided in 1865 to make a special room for these treasures.

It seems to me that it is Raphael himself who is about to be brought back to us. He would never have seen his cartoons reunited with the tapestries woven from them – in fact, he probably never saw a full set of the tapestries at all, because he died just as they were completed, in 1520, at the age of only 37 – after, as Giorgio Vasari claims in his Lives of the Artists, a fever brought on by a night of riotous sex with his mistress.

‘Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel’ is at the V&A Museum, London, Sept 8-Oct 17. Admission is free but booking of timed tickets is strongly advised.

Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor

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