Vatican lends Raphael’s finest tapestries

Papal blessing and private funder for Victoria and Albert Museum’s Sistine show



The Vatican has agreed to lend four Raphael tapestries to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, for the Pope’s visit in September. These include the finest, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes, along with The Sacrifice at Lystra, The Healing of the Lame Man and Christ’s Charge to Peter, woven by Pieter van Aelst and completed in 1520.

They will be presented alongside the V&A’s coloured cartoons by Raphael, finished in 1516 in preparation for the tapestries. The cartoons and tapestries have never been reassembled since their weaving nearly 500 years ago, and even Raphael never saw them together.

Pope Benedict XVI is due to make the first official papal state visit to the UK from 16-19 September. “The loan of the Raphael tapestries is the ‘gift’ of the Holy Father on the occasion of his visit. This is what pulled off the V&A loan,” said Arnold Nesselrath, a German scholar of the Italian Renaissance and a curator at the Vatican Museums. He says that the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, also played a key role.

The Raphael cartoons have been on loan from the Royal Collection to the V&A since 1865. They are so fragile and large (even without their frame, they are each 3.2m by 3.9m) that it would be very risky moving them out of the building, so the loan is effectively a permanent one.

The tapestries can be rolled for transport. Designed for the Sistine Chapel, the ten tapestries are normally on show at the Pinacoteca, part of the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The V&A show, entitled “Raphael Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel”, will run from 8 September to 17 October. The four tapestries on loan are expected to be displayed on large stands in the middle of the gallery, placed at right angles to the relevant cartoon (the V&A has all seven of the surviving Raphael cartoons).

From a scholarly point of view, bringing together the full-size cartoons and the finished tapestries is important. It will provide a unique opportunity to see how the artist’s designs were translated into woven hangings, including colouration. Although the fronts of the tapestries have faded, the textiles at the back provide a closer idea of their original appearance.

The V&A may well arrange an international symposium, which could attract experts such as Thomas Campbell, director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (and curator of its tapestry exhibition in 2002).

Funding for the V&A exhibition will come from Michael Hintze, an Australian-born hedge fund manager and longstanding sponsor of the museum (he and his wife Dorothy are the main backers of Wandsworth Museum in London, due to reopen after building work in September). The Hintzes donated £250,000 to the Victoria and Albert museum for the tapestry show.

The large space of the Raphael Cartoon Court would make it ideal for a reception for the Pope and the Queen, whose works will fill the exhibition.

Negotiations on the V&A show took place alongside discussions for a major autumn exhibition of Vatican art treasures at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which fell through in March (The Art Newspaper, April 2010, p1). Instead the Royal Academy will be showing “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele” (25 September-12 December), including paintings, drawings and sculpture never before seen in the UK.