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The Layers of History Behind Raphael’s Tapestries at the Sistine Chapel

Standing in the chapel last week, I had the feeling that I was seeing something I would never see again: the Sistine Chapel not just as a complete work of art, but as a complete cultural artifact, restored to its Renaissance appearance for a fleeting moment.

Installation view of Raphael’s tapestries at the Sistine Chapel (photo by Claudia Viggiani, used with permission)

VATICAN CITY — On the day after Christmas in 1519, during the feast of St Stephen, Pope Leo X ordered the display of 7 of the ten tapestries he had commissioned from Raphael, produced by the best and most renowned tapestry workshop in Brussels, that of Pieter van Aelst III. The tapestries were the last part of the decoration of the Sistine Chapel, on the lowest register, hung directly below the strip of frescoes just under the chapel’s windows. Paris de Grassis, the papal master of ceremonies, wrote in his diary for that day that “by universal judgement there exists nothing more beautiful in the world than the Sistine Chapel decorated with these tapestries ….” The other three tapestries arrived later, after the artist’s death in April 1520. This past week, for a few precious days and for the first time since the late 1500s, the tapestries went back on view in the Sistine Chapel, as part of the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, one of the Renaissance’s great masters.

To fully understand the significance of these works, we need to back up a moment. The Sistine Chapel was no ordinary chapel, but rather the cappella magna, the Great Chapel. Popes of the 15th-century devoted significant resources to rebuilding the Vatican Palace, including a huge new Great Chapel built by Sixtus IV della Rovere between 1475 and 1481. As the main palace chapel, designed to host conclaves or papal elections, the new, “Sistine” chapel would become a focus for papal display and decoration. Sixtus commissioned a strip of frescoes painted around the central register of the walls, just below the windows. The best artists in Italy — from Umbrians like Perugino and Pinturicchio, to Florentines like Sandro Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio —were tasked with depicting scenes from the life of Jesus on one side, and on the other, scenes from the life of Moses, joining the Old and New Testaments.

Installation view of Raphael’s tapestries at the Sistine Chapel (photo by Claudia Viggiani, used with permission)

By 1515, after Pope Julius II famously commissioned Michelangelo to repaint the chapel’s ceiling (1508–1515), the chapel had become decidedly top-heavy in its decoration. Then-Pope Leo X (born Giovanni de’ Medici) commissioned a series of designs for tapestries from the artist who was already decorating the papal apartment, Raffaello Sanzio, known to many as Raphael. The Medici crest features prominently in the woven frames of the tapestries’ scenes.

Usually a selection of Raphael’s tapestries are kept behind glass in a gloomy hall in the Vatican Picture Gallery, which made the recent display a rare opportunity to see them as they were intended to be seen. Intensely curious to see what the effect would be, I spent an hour taking in the display myself, almost unaware of the crowds peering upward at Michelangelo’s ceiling. I was completely captivated by the tapestries at eye level. 

The stories they tell are roughly divisible into two sets of episodes in the lives of saints Peter and Paul, a parallel to the two sets of frescoes in the register directly above, focused on Moses and Jesus. While we do not know how the tapestries were originally arranged, the present display positions Peter on the left-hand side, under Moses, and Paul on the right-hand side, under Jesus. (I suspect the original hang might have been the other way around, to emphasize the relationship between Peter and Jesus, reinforcing the pope’s role as successor to Peter.) But the tapestries could be displayed in different ways: they even covered the lower register of the altar wall, now the site of Michelangelo’s magnificent Last Judgement (1535-1541). An inventory of 1518 shows that Leo X bought 47 tapestries for the chapel, so the way they were arranged most likely varied according to the religious festival being celebrated.

Raphael’s tapestry depicting St. Peter’s Judgement of Ananias hangs below Botticelli’s fresco of the punishment of the rebels (photo by Claudia Viggiani, used with permission)

Seeing the tapestries in full light was a revelation. The overall effect is sumptuous, even awe-inspiring, and their level of detail is astonishing. My favorite, the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” depicts fishermen leaning over the water to pull up their nets, while their catch is collected in a neighboring boat with Peter and Jesus surrounded by an abundance of edible marine life. The dense weaving by van Aelst creates a painterly sense of shading. Another striking aspect is the high percentage of gold and silver thread; the surface of the tapestries glitters with the subtle movement of the cloth. The movement and complexity of Raphael’s designs are clearly influenced by Michelangelo’s work on the ceiling, but the tapestries have a more direct relationship with the figures in the register immediately above them, both seeming to share the same scale even though Raphael’s figures are larger. This is a perspectival trick which makes the chapel seem taller.

Floor detail of the tapestries

Seeing the tapestries in place, I finally understood their purpose. They complete the iconography of the chapel, from the Old Testament to the New, by featuring the two chief saints of Rome. The tapestries also absorb sound and soften the experience of the space. The crests of the Medici pope figure prominently in what remains of the border tapestries, and a multitude of other stories is told in gold and silver thread at the bases, as if in relief, while along the vertical sides figures represent the hours and seasons. Even pagan figures like the Fates, spinning the thread of life, measuring it, and cutting it, appear.

Not all of Leo’s 47 tapestries have survived. The Vatican was sacked in 1527-28 by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the high gold content of the tapestries made them tempting loot. One of the tapestries in the Paul series lost its lower half, which has since been replaced with slightly faded colors, based on the original drawing. Later in the sixteenth century the popes decided to display the tapestries only on special festival days, and then put them in the Vatican Museums. But standing there in the chapel last week, I had the feeling that I was seeing something I would never see again: the Sistine Chapel not just as a complete work of art, but as a complete cultural artifact, restored to its Renaissance appearance for a fleeting moment, an expression of a Christianity revitalized by the rediscovery of classical antiquity.

Installation view of Raphael’s tapestries at the Sistine Chapel (photo by Claudia Viggiani, used with permission)

Raphael’s tapestries were on view from February 17–23 at the Sistine Chapel (Vatican Museums, Vatican City). 

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