The stunning papal visit exhibition that never was

My colleague Edward Pentin writes that the Vatican has formally announced that it is lending the Sistine Chapel Raphael tapestries to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for a “once in a life-time” exhibition.

It will be a small but incredibly significant exhibition. For the first time since Raphael drew the colour cartoons, which belong to the V&A, and the tapestries were woven in the Low Countries, the two will hang together. This will be truly out of the ordinary and will run at the V&A from September 8 to October 14 in aid of the papal visit.

Professor Arnold Nesselrath, the director for Byzantine, Mediaeval and Modern Art at the Vatican Museum and a Raphael expert, called it “a unique occasion”. He also said that the Vatican Museums and the V&A had put the exhibition together in six months instead of the years of preparation normally needed because of the good relationship with the V&A.

But this is only half the story. In January, Dr Thierry Morel, an art historian who is now the director of the London Friends of the Hermitage, together with the Royal Academy, a competitor of the V&A, approached the bishops of England and Wales informally. The RA had an unprecedented vacancy in its roomy main galleries in September after the Prince of Liechtenstein withdrew his collection because of a row over Britain buying stolen information.

Dr Morel thought the vacancy would be an opportunity for an exhibition on a large scale on papal patronage, which would coincide with the Pope’s visit. The artwork on loan from the Vatican Museums and libraries would be a gift from the Pope to the people of Britain. The pieces would be significant objects from the Vatican’s collections: paintings, sculptures, books that reflected the way that the popes of the past served as patrons of the arts.

The exhibition would also have had religious underpinnings. When the RA hosted the Byzantine exhibition a few years ago it welcomed the Orthodox monks who looked after the icons, who came and venerate the icons every day before and after opening hours. One idea for the papal patronage exhibition was to have Pope Benedict pick a series of his favourite objects from the Vatican Museums with explanations of why they were significant to him.

There was an enthusiastic response from the Church.

From Dr Morel and the RA’s point of view there were only two problems: one was time (normally such an exhibition takes years to put together) and the other was insurance. British museums borrow foreign artwork on the back of the British government indemnity scheme, whereby the Government insures works of art against theft and damage. But the Vatican Museums do not accept government indemnity schemes and favoured its own insurers.

After the ad limina visit at the end of January everyone was hopeful. The Pope reportedly loved the idea. The curators had been told to write up a wish-list. The Vatican even decided to waive its policy of not accepting government indemnity schemes. Everything was on schedule for what would have been one of the most important exhibitions of Vatican artefacts to be shown outside Rome.

Then the project came to a mysterious halt. And, in February, the Vatican Museums suddenly contacted the V&A and offered them the tapestries.