Vatican announces ‘once in a lifetime’ display of Raphael works at the V&A

Raphael tapestries hung in the Sistine Chapel (Photo: Vatican Museums)

The Vatican formally announced last night what’s being billed as a “once in a lifetime” exhibition to take place at the Victorian and Albert Museum in London.

The display of Raphael’s cartoons and tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, an initiative of Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, will be timed to coincide with Benedict XVI’s state visit to Britain in September.

The exhibition will run from September 8 to October 17, and be inaugurated by the archbishop on September 6.

Depicting the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the tapestries were originally designed for the Sistine Chapel almost 500 years ago. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design them, they were woven in Brussels and then sent to Rome for display.

Raphael’s cartoons (designs for the tapestries) belong to the Queen and have been on display at the V&A since 1865, but this, surprisingly, will be the first time the cartoons and the tapestries are displayed together – something Raphael himself never witnessed as his original designs remained in Brussels.

Yesterday, for one night only, the Vatican took the tapestries from the Arazzi (Tapestry) Gallery of the Vatican Museums and hung them on the walls of the Sistine Chapel in the places where they are thought to have been originally located, although no one knows the precise locations.

Raphael’s masterpieces have had a long, rich and colourful history: they were removed and sold one year because the Vatican was short of money after the Sack of Rome. They have also travelled to different countries but some found their way back. They are physically precious, containing gold and silver, and so there are stories of some of them being burned to try and extract the precious metals.

Four scenes depict scenes from the life of St Peter. These are The Handing-over of the Keys; The Miraculous Draught of Fishes; The Healing of the Lame Man; and The Death of Ananias. The other six tapestries illustrate scenes from the life of St Paul. They are: The Stoning of St Stephen, which depicts an event St Paul ordered; The Conversion of St Paul; The Blinding of the Sorcerer, Elymas; The Sacrifices in Lystra; St Paul in Prison; and St Paul Preaching in Athens.

Professor Arnold Nesselrath of the Scientific Departments and Laboratories of the Vatican Museums told me of the importance of bringing together the designs and the tapestries. “They are two complementary parts of one whole: the Queen has the cartoons, we have the tapestries, and you can’t understand one without the other, so this is a unique occasion,” he said.

He said the Vatican Museums and the V&A have had to put the exhibition together quickly – in six months rather than the usual two to three years – but said it was possible because “we work together very well with the V&A”.

Many were thrilled last night to see the tapestries in the places where they were meant to be shown – the first time since 1983 – and the showing brought together people of all backgrounds.

“I thought I would never see this day,” said Elizabeth Lev, professor of Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. “Again, art shows itself to be a bridge between people,” she said. “If we can’t dialogue nicely about Church and state and life issues, let’s start with something we can dialogue about properly: art and beauty – we all love this,” she said. “For one night we can all have something in common – we can come together and it’s totally non-confrontational.”

As well as the V&A and the Vatican Museums, September’s exhibition has been made possible thanks to the generosity of the Australian and UK-based philanthropists, Michael and Dorothy Hintze and the Hintze Family Charitable Foundation, with further support from the Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museums.

Entrance to the exhibition will be free but advance booking is strongly recommended.