Sunday 26 September 2010


Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel

V&A, 8th September to 17th October 2010

Only a week before the Pope's visit to London, the V&A's Raphael Court was augmented with this exhibition of tapestries commissioned for the Sistine Chapel in the Sixteenth Century.

The notes accompanying the display make the power games of the Vatican today look transparent and unbiased by comparison to the manoeuvres of the Medici. The selection of Biblical scenes for the chapel leant towards those that "reinforced the authority of the papacy" - ie. scenes of St. Peter, St. Paul and the early church.

The tapestries correspond to the cartoons (full-scale painted draughts on paper) that are on permanent display at the V&A (on loan from the royal collection after centuries at Hampton Court Palace since Charles I acquired them in Brussels before his ascension). In some places an additional painted copy is shown alongside. I found the most engaging part of the exhibition in comparing the sketches, cartoons, painted copies and interpretations by tapestry artists. Colours that work well in paint were swapped for ones that stand out better in fabric; extra space was given to craftsmen who excelled at foliage or wildlife.

The larger changes range from the theologically significant (Christ's position and gesture in "Christ's Charge To Peter") to the mildly-entertaining (on the tapestry Christ's white toga, unlike the cartoon, is covered in little golden suns). A case of sketches shows preparatory drawings of models making the same scene in everyday Renaissance dress.

Collectors in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries admired Renaissance artists' ability to "tell their story plainly". Raphael's images were revered for their "clear, dramatic narrative". The drama and dynamism are in fact souped up in the explosive stupification of onlookers at "The Death Of Ananias" and the fishermen straining at the nets in "The Miraculous Draught Of Fish".

The effect of all of this is spoiled when visitors turn to see the "Retable of St George", one of the permanent fixtures in the room: a magnificently painted and gilded altar screen demanding closer inspection. Very soon they recoil in horror when they see a few few moments of piety and triumph overwhelmed by a series of increasingly gruesome ways to die.

So, away from the subject of Raphael, here is a full list:

Retable of St George, c. 1410: altarpiece from the Chapel of the Confraternity of the Centinar de la Ploma

  • The Holy Spirit
  • Christ with the orb
  • Moses; Elijah
  • St John; St Luke; St Mark; St Matthew
  • The Virgin Mary and the Child Crowned by christ and Surrounded by Angels

  • A Christian Army under James I of Aragon Defeats the Moors with the Help of Saint George at the Battle of Puig in 1237
  • Saint George Ties the Dragon with the Princess's Girdle
  • The King, Queen, Princess and the People of Silene are Baptised
  • Saint George Denounces the Pagan gods before Dacian
  • Saint George is Tortured tied to a Cross
  • Saint George Survives Poison
  • Saint George is Tortured on a Table
  • Saint George is put in Prison
  • Saint George is Tortured between two wheels
  • Saint George is Tied between two Posts and Sawn in Half
  • Saint George is Tortured in a Cauldron
  • Saint George at Prayer
  • Saint George Fights the Dragon
  • Saint George is Dragged by Horses
  • Saint George is Beheaded

  • The Agony in the Garden
  • The Betrayal
  • Christ before Caiaphas
  • The Flagellation
  • The Mocking
  • Christ Bearing the Cross
  • The Crucifixion
  • The Deposition
  • The Entombment
  • The Resurrection
It's fascinating and it's horrible.

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