Raphael Cartoons

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The Miraculous Draught of Fishes
St Paul Preaching in Athens
A rare display of the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel, 2011
Christ's Charge to Peter

The Raphael Cartoons are seven large cartoons for tapestries, belonging to the British Royal Collection but since 1865 on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, designed by the High Renaissance painter Raphael in 1515–16 and showing scenes from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. They are the only surviving members of a set of ten cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace, which are still (on special occasions) hung below Michelangelo's famous ceiling. Reproduced in the form of prints, the tapestries rivalled Michelangelo's ceiling as the most famous and influential designs of the Renaissance, and were well known to all artists of the Renaissance and Baroque.[1][a] Admiration of them reached its highest pitch in the 18th and 19th centuries; they were described as "the Parthenon sculptures of modern art".[2]

Commission and the tapestries[edit]

Raphael – whom Michelangelo greatly disliked – was highly conscious that his work would be seen beside the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had been finished only two years before, and took great care perfecting his designs, which are among his largest and most complicated. Originally the set was intended to include 16 tapestries. Raphael was paid twice by Leo, in June 1515 and December 1516, the last payment apparently being upon completion of the work. Tapestries retained their Late Gothic prestige during the Renaissance.[3] Most of the expense was in the manufacture: although the creation of the tapestries in Brussels cost 15,000 ducats, Raphael was paid only 1,000.[4]

The Death of Ananias
The same scene in the Vatican tapestry

The tapestries were made with both gold and silver thread; some were later burnt by soldiers in the Sack of Rome in 1527 to extract the precious metals. The first delivery was in 1517, and seven were displayed in the Chapel for Christmas Day in 1519 (then as now, their display was reserved for special occasions).[4]

The cartoons are painted in a glue distemper medium on many sheets of paper glued together (as can be seen in the full-size illustrations); they are now mounted on a canvas backing. They are all slightly over 3 m (3 yd) tall, and from 3 to 5 m (3 to 5 yd) wide; the figures are therefore over-lifesize.[5] Although some colours have faded, they are in general in very good condition.[6] The tapestries are mirror-images of the cartoons, as they were worked from behind; Raphael's consciousness of this in his designs appears to be intermittent.[7] Raphael's workshop would have assisted in their completion; they were finished with great care, and actually show a much more subtle range of colouring than was capable of being reproduced in a tapestry.[b] Some small preparatory drawings also survive: one for The Conversion of the Proconsul is also in the Royal Collection,[8][9] and the Getty Museum in Malibu has a figure study of St Paul Rending His Garments.[10] There would have been other drawings for all the subjects, which have been lost; it was from these that the first prints were made.

The seven cartoons were probably completed in 1516 and were then sent to Brussels, where the Vatican tapestries were woven by the workshop of Pieter van Aelst. This set was partly destroyed in the Sack of Rome in 1528, but the Vatican Museums have acquired tapestries and recreated sections to complete a full set, now usually displayed in a gallery, but sometimes moved to the Sistine Chapel for special occasions. They were displayed in the chapel for a week in February 2020, to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael's death. Their layout around the chapel is a matter of discussion among scholars, as there is no record of what was originally intended.[11]

The tapestries had very wide and elaborate borders, also designed by Raphael, which these cartoons omit; presumably they had their own cartoons.[12] Some of the side borders are separate pieces. The borders included ornamentation in an imitation of Ancient Roman relief sculpture and carved porphyry, as well as scenes from the life of Leo. They were themselves very influential, and sometimes used for other tapestries.[13]

Raphael knew that the final product of his work would be produced by craftsmen rendering his design in another medium; his efforts are therefore entirely concentrated on strong compositions and broad effects, rather than felicitous handling or detail. It was partly this that made the designs so effective in reduced print versions. The Raphael of the cartoons was revered by The Carracci, but the great period of their influence began with Nicolas Poussin, who borrowed heavily from them and "indeed exaggerated Raphael's style; or rather concentrated it, for he was working on a much smaller scale".[14] Thereafter they remained the touchstone of one approach to history painting until at least the early 19th century – the Raphael whose influence the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to reject was perhaps above all the Raphael of the cartoons.


The Healing of the Lame Man
The Conversion of the Proconsul
The Sacrifice at Lystra

The Raphael Cartoons represent scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul.[15] As was usual, the completed tapestries reverse are a mirror image of) the cartoon designs. The programme emphasised a number of points relevant to contemporary controversies in the period just before the Protestant Reformation, but especially the entrusting of the Church to Saint Peter, the founder of the papacy. There were relatively few precedents for these subjects, so Raphael was less constrained by traditional iconographic expectations than he would have been with a series on the life of Christ or Mary. He no doubt received some advice or instructions in choosing the scenes to depict. The scenes from the Life of Peter were designed to hang below the frescoes of the Life of Christ by Perugino and others in the middle register of the Chapel; opposite them, the Life of Saint Paul was to hang below the Life of Moses in fresco. An intervening small frieze showed subjects from the life of Leo, also designed to complement the other series. Each sequence begins at the altar wall, with the Life of Peter on the right side of the Chapel and Life of Paul on the left. Including the three subjects with no surviving cartoons, the set contains (the full scriptural quotations and a commentary are on the V&A website):[16][17]

Life of Peter[edit]

  • The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (Luke 5:1–11)
  • Christ's Charge to Peter (Matthew 16:16–19) The key moment in the Gospels for the claims of the Papacy
  • The Healing of the Lame Man (Acts 3:1–8)
  • The Death of Ananias (Acts 5:1–10)

Life of Paul[edit]

  • The Stoning of St Stephen (no cartoon) at which Paul (Saul) was present before his conversion.
  • The Conversion of Saint Paul (no cartoon[c])
  • The Conversion of the Proconsul or The Blinding of Elymas (Acts 13:6–12). Paul had been invited to preach to the Roman proconsul of Paphos, Sergius Paulus, but is heckled by Elymas, a "magus", whom Paul miraculously causes to go temporarily blind, thus converting the proconsul.
  • The Sacrifice at Lystra (Acts 14:8). After Paul miraculously cures a cripple, the people of Lystra see him and his companion Barnabas (both standing left) as gods, and want to make a sacrifice to them. Paul tears his garments in disgust, whilst Barnabas speaks to the crowd, persuading the young man at centre to restrain the man with the sacrificial axe.
  • St Paul in prison (no cartoon), much smaller than the others, tall and narrow. This is also missing from the later tapestry sets.
  • St Paul Preaching in Athens (Acts 17:16–34), the figure standing at the left in a red cap is a portrait of Leo; next to him is Janus Lascaris, a Greek scholar in Rome. The kneeling couple at the right were probably added by Giulio Romano, then an assistant to Raphael.
The subjects missing from the cartoon set

Further sets made in Brussels[edit]

Cartoons were sometimes returned with tapestries to the commissioner, but this clearly did not happen here, perhaps because of the death of Leo. This allowed four other recorded sets to be made later in Brussels, all of nine tapestries, missing the small Saint Paul in Prison. One was bought by Henry VIII of England in 1542. After being sold in 1649 in the dispersion of the collection of Charles I of England, eventually Henry's set ended up in Berlin, where it was destroyed by the RAF in World War II. King Francis I of France had another of similar date, now lost. The Ducal Palace, Mantua has a set, made in Brussels for Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga in the early 16th century, with the arms of Gonzaga in the borders. Dussler describes these as "in better condition than the series in the Vatican". A set woven around 1550 that joined the Spanish royal collection some time in the following decades now belongs to the Patrimonio Nacional, and is usually hung in the Royal Palace, Madrid.[18]

In England[edit]

The seven cartoons now in London were bought from a Genoese collection in 1623 by King Charles I of England, then still Prince of Wales, using agents. He only paid £300 for them, a price that suggests they were regarded as working designs rather than works of art in their own right. Charles had in fact intended to make further tapestries from them at the Mortlake Tapestry Works near London, which he did, with new baroque borders by their designer Francis Cleyn, paying £500 each, but was well aware of their artistic significance.[d] They had been cut into long vertical strips a yard wide, as was required for use on low-warp tapestry looms, and were only permanently rejoined in the 1690s at Hampton Court. In Charles' day these were stored in wooden boxes in the Banqueting House, Whitehall. They were one of the few items in the Royal Collection withheld from sale by Oliver Cromwell after Charles' execution.[19] The fate of the other three cartoons from the set is unknown; that for the Conversion of Saint Paul was recorded in the collection of Cardinal Grimani in Venice in 1521, and of his heir in 1526.[20]

William III commissioned Sir Christopher Wren and William Talman to design the "Cartoon Gallery" at Hampton Court Palace in 1699, specially to contain them. By this date, the prestige of tapestries in general was beginning to wane, and those of the early sets that had survived were probably already rather faded and dirty. From this point on, the cartoons became regarded as the most authentic and attractive expression of Raphael's conceptions. European taste had also moved in their favour; their dignified classicism was very much in tune with a movement away from the more frenzied versions of the Baroque. The fame of the cartoons, as opposed to the designs in general, grew rapidly.

In 1763, when George III moved them to the newly bought Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace) there were protests in Parliament by John Wilkes and others, as they would no longer be accessible to the public (Hampton Court had long been open to visitors). They had been greatly studied by artists and cognoscenti alike whilst at Hampton Court, and played a crucial role in forming English expectations of a monumental style of painting; one of the great preoccupations of English art in the 18th century. These were often mentioned in the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the dominant English critical work on art of the century. Having explained that "The principal works of modern art are in fresco" he specifically adds the cartoons "which, though not strictly to be called fresco, yet may be put under that denomination" before claiming that "Raffaelle ... stands in general foremost of the first painters..." (i.e. the best painters) and comparing Raphael's works in oil unfavourably to his frescoes.[21]

In 1804 they were returned to Hampton Court, where in 1858 they were photographed for the first time by Charles Thompson Thurston, having been taken out into the courtyard and placed upside down on special scaffolding.[22] In 1865 Queen Victoria decided that the cartoons should be exhibited on loan at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they are still to be seen in a specially designed gallery.[19] There are also copies at many locations, including Knole House and Hampton Court Palace, where the copies painted in the 1690s by an artist named Henry Cooke are displayed in the Cartoon Gallery. The Royal Collection also has a set of the tapestries. A set of copies painted by Sir James Thornhill have been owned by Columbia University since 1959,[23] and another is in the Royal Academy.[24]

Several other sets were made in Mortlake; Cleyn had made copies of the designs, and these were used. Charles I's set was bought by Cardinal Mazarin, and now belongs to the French government.[25] Forde Abbey,[26] Chatsworth House, the Duke of Buccleuch and others have sets.[27] A set of six tapestries is now in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden,[28] and the Ducal Palace, Urbino displays a set.

Prints after the designs[edit]

Death of Ananias, chiaroscuro woodcut in three blocks by Ugo da Carpi, 1518 (state without the copyright inscription).

In the early 16th century many Italian artists learnt the lesson of the huge, and very rapid, international prestige that Albrecht Dürer had gained through his prints, and set out to emulate him. Raphael had no knowledge of printmaking himself, and was probably too busy to want to learn the techniques, but he was the most successful of the Italians in spreading his fame through prints, through his much debated relationship with the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and his workshop.[29] Raphael made many drawings solely as designs for prints, and the workshop made a large number of prints, apparently working always from drawings rather than the finished work, of Raphael's paintings in the Vatican and elsewhere; the tapestry designs were no exception. These prints themselves were very widely copied by other printmakers, and spread rapidly through Europe.[30]

The earliest datable print after one of the designs is an engraving of 1516 by Agostino Veneziano, then working in the workshop of Marcantonio Raimondi, of the Death of Ananias. This was probably made even before that tapestry was woven. The composition is in the same direction as the tapestry, but since the printmaking process would also reverse the direction of the composition, this almost certainly means it was deliberately reversed compared to the detailed preparatory drawing in the Royal Collection on which it was based (see above; the two agree in all details), probably by taking a counterprint from the chalk drawing.[e] All Raimondi and Veneziano's prints of Raphael's designs in Raphael's lifetime were based on drawings, according to both Landau and Pons.[31] Raimondi himself engraved one of the set, which were presumably all produced around 1516, so that even many in the Roman art world may have seen prints of the designs before they saw the tapestries themselves.[32]

Marcantonio Raimondi, Saint Paul preaching in Athens, Italian engraving, before 1520. Copied from a preparatory drawing.

Agostino's engraving was rapidly copied in another well-known version, a four-colour chiaroscuro woodcut by Ugo da Carpi, dated 1518.[33] The da Carpi woodcut is often cited in studies of the complex question of early image copyright, as it bears (in its first state) a Latin inscription beneath the image claiming "copyright"-style privileges from both the Venetian Republic and the Papacy (covering the Papal States) and threatening excommunication for anyone breaching the latter.[34][35] Apart from other straightforward copies of the prints from the Raimondi set, Parmigianino did a typically individual print version of one design from the set in about 1530.[36]

A later large set of engravings by Matthaeus Merian the Elder illustrating the Bible, from around the end of the century, used some of the compositions, slightly increasing the height, and elaborating them. These were much used and copied in popular books, further widening the knowledge of the designs to a much larger audience.

After the cartoons were reassembled at the end of the 17th century, by which time printmakers were well accustomed to copying direct from large paintings, they became the dominant source of new print copies. By the 18th century many different print versions were in circulation, of varying faithfulness and quality.


  1. ^ Rather oddly, both Jones and Penny and Grove Art say, wrongly, that the V&A have eight of the ten cartoons.
  2. ^ V&A website on the colouring. Wölfflin 1968, p. 108 believed they were entirely executed by Penni, one of Raphael's studio, but Jones and Penny and most writers now believe Raphael did much of the painting himself.
  3. ^ For the tapestry, see: The Conversion of Saul, Met Museum
  4. ^ Charles' original Mortlake set now belongs to the French Government
  5. ^ that is, rubbing a piece of paper against the print, so that a faint reversed image is transferred



  1. ^ White, John; Shearman, John (September 1958). "Raphael's Tapestries and Their Cartoons". The Art Bulletin. 40 (3): 193–221. doi:10.2307/3047778.
  2. ^ Wölfflin, Heinrich (1968). Classic Art; An Introduction to the Renaissance. New York: Phaidon. p. 108.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  3. ^ Campbell, Thomas P. (2002). Tapestry in the Renaissance: Art and Magnificence. "Introduction". New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. (quoted in: Horsley, Carter B. (2002-04-14). "Tapestry in the Renaissance, Art and Magnificence". The City Review. Retrieved 2007-11-08.)
  4. ^ a b Jones & Penny 1983, p. 135.
  5. ^ "Raphael Cartoons". V&A website. Archived from the original on 2009-06-12. Retrieved 2007-11-08.
  6. ^ Jones & Penny 1983, pp. 133–135.
  7. ^ Oppé, A. Paul (1944). "Right and Left in Raphael's Cartoons". Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes. 7: 82–94. doi:10.2307/750382. (analysis of this aspect of the cartoons and tapestries)
  8. ^ Whitaker & Clayton 2007, pp. 82–3.
  9. ^ "Raphael (Urbino 1483-Rome 1520) - The Conversion of the Proconsul". Royal Collection Trust. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  10. ^ "Saint Paul Rending His Garments". The J. Paul Getty Museum. J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  11. ^ "The triumphant – but temporary – return of Raphael’s tapestries to the Sistine Chapel", by Susan Moor, 28 February 2020, Apollo Magazine
  12. ^ A good photo of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes from a slightly later set of 1545–57 Archived 2007-11-21 at the Wayback Machine from the Metropolitan.
  13. ^ "Living on the Edge: Tapestry Borders", Metropolitan Museum blog, 27 May, 2014, by Sarah Mallory
  14. ^ Jones & Penny 1983, p. 142.
  15. ^ Dussler analysus each design, and its textual basis and relationship to earlier depictions.
  16. ^ "The Raphael Cartoons". Victoria and Albert Museum. Archived from the original on 2011-05-15. Retrieved 2011-05-23.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  17. ^ Jones & Penny 1983, pp. 135–142.
  18. ^ Dussler; "I cartoni di Raffaello e le altre serie di arazzi", Ducal Palace, Mantua, website
  19. ^ a b Whitaker & Clayton 2007, pp. 12,16.
  20. ^ Dussler
  21. ^ Reynolds, Joshua (1901). Seven Discourses on Art. Cassell and Company – via Project Gutenberg.
  22. ^ Lambert, Susan (1987). The Image Multiplied; Five centuries of printed reproductions of paintings and drawings. London: Trefoil Publications. ISBN 0-86294-096-6. p.112.
  23. ^ Knubel, Fred (1996-09-01). "Thornhill Copies of Raphael's Tapestry Cartoons To Go on Display at Columbia University". Columbia University. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  24. ^ "The Blinding of Elymas | Sir James Thornhill (1675/76 - 1734)". The Royal Academy of Arts. Retrieved 2019-03-25.
  25. ^ Dussler
  26. ^ "The Mortlake Tapestries", Forde Abbey website
  27. ^ Dussler
  28. ^ "Raffael – Macht der Bilder; Die Tapisserien und ihre Wirkung", Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
  29. ^ Pon 2004, pp. 102–3.
  30. ^ Pon 2004, especially Chapters 1,3 and 4. There is also extensive discussion in Landau & Parshall 1996, especially pp. 120–146.
  31. ^ Landau & Parshall 1996, pp. 120–121.
  32. ^ "Childs Gallery". Archived from the original on 2010-09-20. Retrieved 2007-11-10.
  33. ^ Landau & Parshall 1996, pp. 145,160.
  34. ^ Landau & Parshall 1996, p. 150.
  35. ^ Pon 2004, pp. 74–5.
  36. ^ "Peter and John Healing the Lame Man at the Beautiful Gate". MFA Boston. Archived from the original on 2007-12-05.




  • Landau, David; Parshall, Peter (1996). The Renaissance Print. Yale UP. ISBN 0-300-06883-2.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Pon, Lisa (2004). Raphael, Dürer, and Marcantonio Raimondi, Copying and the Italian Renaissance Print. Yale UP. ISBN 978-0-300-09680-4.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]