Soon after Pope Leo X was elected, probably later that year or in 1514, he commissioned Raphael to supply a set of cartoons for a series of ten tapestries to be hung in the Sistine Chapel. Raphael is thought to have worked on these with his workshop during 1515, and possibly into the following year. The cartoons were painted on paper using a glue tempera or gouache, and on completion were sent to Pieter van Aelst’s renowned tapestry workshop in Brussels, where they were woven into tapestries.
The completed tapestries arrived in Rome between 1517-19. By the end of 1519, seven of them hung on the walls of the Sistine Chapel, with the remaining three arriving probably during 1520.
The cartoons were painted by Raphael himself, together with his studio assistants Gianfrancesco Penni and Giulio Romano. When they were in Brussels, the cartoons were cut into strips to facilitate their weaving. Once the tapestries were complete, those strips were already heavily worn, and entered the art market until they were bought for the collection of Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1623. Rubens may have facilitated that transaction. They remain in the UK Royal Collection, and are now exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The tapestries had more of an adventurous life. By 1521, seven were in pawn. Shortly after the Sack of Rome they were looted and sold into private collections. By 1544 seven of them had been repurchased by the Vatican, and the series was complete again in 1553. They were stolen again in 1798, and only recovered in 1808.
The Brussels workshop subsequently wove at least four sets of copies, one for Federigo Gonzaga’s Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, another for the Royal Palace in Madrid, a third for King Henry VIII which were destroyed by fire when in Berlin during the Second World War, and a fourth for the French monarch, which have been lost. These sets all appear to have omitted the tapestry of Saint Paul in Prison. Later copies, woven in England after 1619, are more numerous.
Raphael’s cartoons form two cycles, which are arranged opposite one another, and intended to be read starting from the chapel’s altarpiece. They tell the lives of the two saints most involved in early Christian ministry: Saint Peter the Apostle, and Saint Paul.
The Life of Saint Peter
This cycle opens with his calling, and continues with his investiture as Christ’s Vicar on Earth, when he is given the keys. The divine nature of that mission is shown in the miraculous healing of the lame man, and the cycle concludes with him acting as judge in the punishment of Ananias. These scenes reinforce the primacy of the Pope, to refute the heretical claims of a group of rebellious cardinals during the office of Pope Julius II.
The Miraculous Draft of Fishes is based on the Gospel of Luke Chapter 5, verses 1-10, and shows the calling of Saint Peter the Apostle. Peter, then known as Simon, was a fisherman who worked the Sea of Galilee with his brother Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee. Jesus called Simon and his brother to become “fishers of men”. The detail below shows Raphael’s command of his medium, and his use of white paint (then probably using a lead pigment) for its highlights.
Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter is taken from both the Gospel of John Chapter 21, verses 1-17, and that of Matthew Chapter 16, verse 16 ff. This combines Christ’s actions of conferring the power of the keys and the office of chief shepherd in his double gesture. His left hand points to the large key being held by the kneeling Saint Peter, and his right hand points at the flock of sheep representing the church. Peter became the first Bishop of Rome, thus the first Pope.
The Healing of the Lame Man refers to the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 3, verses 1-7, which contains the story of a man who was ‘lame’ from birth. He was taken to the Temple gate known as Beautiful to beg. When he asked Peter for money, the apostle told him to get up and walk, then gave him a hand up onto his feet. The ‘lame’ man went away on his own legs rejoicing. Raphael shows the moment at which Peter performs the miracle, his hands held together in prayer.
The final cartoon in the cycle is The Death of Ananias, based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 5, verses 3-5. Ananias had followed the example of the Cypriot Barnabas, and sold a plot of land to raise money for the early church. However, Ananias had secretly withheld some of the proceeds for himself. Peter drew attention to the lie that Ananias had made to God, whereupon the man fell dead where he was.
Raphael’s cartoon (above) is reversed on the tapestry (below), and the latter’s borders are enhanced with a frieze, the emblem of the Pope, and additional vignettes. When they were new, these tapestries must have been magnificent.
The Life of Saint Paul
This cycle tells the story of the Apostle to the Gentiles, starting with Saul in his original role as an enemy of Christianity, before his miraculous conversion, which was placed opposite Peter’s investiture with the keys. Following that are two tapestries showing Paul’s work among the people. The series concludes with demonstration of the power of prayer in delivering Paul from his prison cell, and his active propagation of the Word.
Sadly, of those six tapestries, only three cartoons have survived.
The first, The Stoning of St. Stephen is based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 7, verses 55-59, but the cartoon for this has been lost. Likewise with the second, The Conversion of St. Paul, which is based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 9, verses 3-7.
The Blinding of the Magician Elymas is taken from the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 13, verses 6-12, which tells of opposition to Paul’s ministry by a magus named Elymas, or Bar-Jesus. Sergius Paulus, the Roman Proconsul in Paphos on Cyprus, wanted to hear about Jesus. Paul told him that God had decided to make Elymas temporarily blind, which convinced the Roman to convert to Christianity. Raphael uses a proven compositional technique of placing the proconsul in the middle, between Paul on the left (with Barnabas at the left edge), and the magus at the right, feeling his way through his blindness towards the saint.
The Sacrifice at Lystra is based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 14, verses 8-18. This story tells of events at the town of Lystra, in modern Turkey, after Paul and Barnabas had healed a ‘lame’ man there. Citizens thought that the two saints were the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury, and prepared to sacrifice animals to them, including a white ox being held in the centre, and a sheep at the left. Paul and Barnabas dissuaded them.
The cartoon for the penultimate tapestry, Saint Paul in Prison, has been lost. This was based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 16, verses 23-26.
The final cartoon in the cycle is Saint Paul Preaching in Athens, which is based on the Acts of the Apostles Chapter 17, verses 16-34. This shows Paul preaching to the court of the Areopagus, with two young converts, Dionysius and Damaris, kneeling enraptured in the right foreground. The only figure facing away from Paul is the statue of Mars/Ares, the god of war.