For the first time since 1983, all ten of Raphael’s grand tapestries depicting the lives of Saints Peter and Paul will be exhibited together in the Sistine Chapel, hanging at eye level beneath Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling as was the original intention.
Scheduled to be on display Feb. 17-23, 2020, this will be the Vatican’s way of honoring the famous Renaissance master as the world marks the 500th anniversary of his death. The last time they were presented was for the 500th anniversary of his birth.
The artist, who died in 1520 at the age of 37, never saw all ten together. The pieces were woven over a four-year period in Brussels, in the notable and highly successful Brussels tapestry workshop of Pieter van Aelst, using silk, wool and gilded silver thread.
Raphael painted the “cartoons” used to create the tapestries while he was decorating the “Stanze” in the Vatican, also called the Raphael rooms, and he remained in Rome while the tapestries were created.
(Only seven of these “cartoons” survive, and are on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.)
The first seven tapestries were exhibited in the Sistine Chapel on Dec. 26, 1519. The entire set hung for only a short time, before the death of Pope Leo in 1521.
Commissioned by Leo, they were pawned to pay for his funeral, and they then had a turbulent history: They were recovered for the coronation of Hadrian VI a year after being pawned, but they were stolen during the Sack of Rome in 1527, and after many adventures returned to the papal collection between 1544 and 1554.
According to The Art Newspaper, they were looted again during the French occupation of Rome in 1798 and purchased by a secondhand dealer very cheaply. They were repurchased in 1808 and restored to the Vatican collection.
“The golden thread of history, that is, the story of salvation history as winds through in the stories of Sacred Scripture, is an image many Judeo-Christian thinkers and believers have appealed to across the millennia,” said Jill Alexy, an American theologian who travels back and forth between the U.S. and Europe.
“Utilizing incredible craftsmanship skills, the female weavers of the Pieter Van Aelst school wound thin silk threads tightly with gilt foil, to illustrate scenes from the Bible,” she said. “Therefore, we can say that the tapestries are a literal interpretation of this Golden Thread iconography, in scenes beautifully composed and drawn by Raphael and his workshop.”
Alexy, founder of the Martyrian Journeys Team, told Crux that the tapestries recount miracles in the life of the two apostles, “uniting their human efforts as ministers of the Word and of the Altar, to the transcendent activity of the Holy Spirit. It is a breathlessly beautiful way to illustrate the Biblical theology, and the pneumatology, that we find in the Acts of the Apostles.”
The ten tapestries demonstrate the “supernatural” quality of these pieces of art, the University of Notre Dame alumni said, noting that miracles “work through human nature, not around it. The tapestries don’t depict magical scenes, but in the details that Raphael designed, we are witness to scenes close to nature, where God works through and beyond that nature, as it is transcended and transformed.”
“It can be no coincidence, then, that when placed in the impressive setting of the Sistine Chapel, the visual effect is that of rooting an upwards gaze through the ministry and miracles of the Apostles,” Alexy said. “We begin at the lowest register, where we see Peter gathering in, and Paul missioning out. Then, the eye moves upwards to the next level of frescos commissioned by Pope Sixtus IV, wherein Moses’s pilgrimage in Exodus is reflected in and juxtaposed to Christ’s own pilgrimage in the Gospel of Matthew. Finally, the gaze ascends to the uppermost register (the famous ceiling of Michelangelo), which recounts the Old Testament narratives of History, Ancestry, and Prophecy, gathering into and being sent out from to God’s wondrous Act of Creation.”
“Of course, this dramatic pictorial journey through Salvation History cannot, then, be considered complete without the Tapestries which are so integral to the whole sensorial experience” Alexy said.
Alexy is one of a handful of tour guides and collaborators in Rome who will have after-hour access to the Vatican Museums during the week the tapestries will be on display and is co-hosting a pilgrimage to Rome with Rome’s Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
She believes that the tapestries created by Raphael will allow those who come to see them the opportunity to “immerse themselves as pilgrims, as seekers on their own unique journey.”
“Creation, redemption and blessing: we come from God in order to return to Him,” the theologian said. “A quiet moment of prayer and reflection, inspired by these beautiful scenes and beautiful golden threads, will be a tremendous experience for all those who have the opportunity to live this Chapel in this way.”
It is her view that the Chapel will once again, in a complete way, live its mission to educate and form, to call for repentance and renewal, for those who gather in the space to pray, to look, to wonder and awe.
The tapestries, she said, “must have been a very formative and motivational experience for the deacons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, and of course the laity, who gathered in the Sistine Chapel after the tapestries were first displayed there in December 1519.”
Alexy noted that the tapestries were commissioned and created as the Protestant Reformation was just getting underway, and as dangerous cultural wars seemed to be breaking out across Europe.
“It must have been a helpful tool, then, to see these tapestries, to see the frescos, to walk on the cosmateque floor, and to hear the chanted prayer that accompanied the whole experience,” she said. “It must have given all those people hope. And now, in our own tumultuous times, this unique exhibit will be a novel way for everyone seeking to actively participate in the life of faith and the common good, to be formed and to journey towards fruitfulness.”
“As the Church is called to continual renewal, it is with great joy that we anticipate the renewal of the Chapel, and the spiritual renewal of those who will pass through its doors, when these tapestries are on display,” Alexy said.