An unexpected blessing

    The Pope is coming to Britain. Various local observers will have different reactions to this event. In my household, however, there will be joyous cheering and whooping. Perhaps some dancing and skipping. We might even run to a conga. Not for religious reasons, mind you. Seven interminable years of prayer and punishment at a Polish Catholic boarding school cured me permanently of any inherited faith in gods or popes. I’ll be cheering because Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain has enabled something monumental to occur in the world of art and culture: something I never imagined I would witness.

    To mark the papal visit, and perhaps also to soften us up for it, the Vatican is lending to the Victoria and Albert Museum, for the first time ever, four of the tapestries Raphael imagined for the Sistine Chapel. These are going to be shown alongside the full-size designs he made for them, the so-called Raphael Cartoons. Thus, in the coming weeks, tapestries and cartoons will be hanging side by side, in the same room, at the same time, in Britain.

    Reader, forget the healing of the lame man. Forget the miraculous draught of fishes. This is a true miracle. The Vatican — possibly the least willing, least adaptable, least approachable, least helpful, least persuadable and most arrogant institution on earth — is lending some of its most precious cargo to the descendants of Henry VIII. Conga, conga!

    Regular visitors to the V&A will already be aware of the significance of the Raphael Cartoons. They have been hanging in the museum since 1865 and are rightly considered to be among the most important surviving masterworks of the Renaissance. Originally acquired in 1623 by Charles I, they have changed the direction of European art in so many ways, on so many occasions, that I am unsure which would be the greater loss to our culture if sent back to their rightful owners: the Elgin Marbles or the Raphael Cartoons? Hesitation tells all.

    Not that the Vatican has demanded their return. That would take the wildest Italian cheek. The cartoons boast much too eventful a past for any Roman popes to feel possessive about them. Even the fact that we were the ones who blew up Henry VIII’s set of Sistine tapestries when we bombed the bejesus out of Berlin in the second world war seems somehow to tighten the elastic that ties Raphael to Britain.

    Cast your mind back 500 years, to the height of the Renaissance, the golden age. You are in Rome, where a churlish genius named Michelangelo has just completed the painting of the entire vault of the Sistine Chapel, a task of seemingly superhuman endeavour that has given the world its greatest display of painting. All who see it are astounded. The ceiling’s fame travels quickly to all corners of the civilised earth.

    Michelangelo was commissioned by Julius II, the one they called the Warrior Pope, a brilliant and scary pontiff so terrifyingly certain of his calling that he knocked down the old St Peter’s, which had stood there for 1,000 years, and built himself a new one. You cannot achieve as much as Julius did at the Vatican without inspiring rancour, doubt and jealousy. His death in 1513 was mourned by a few and welcomed by many more. Among them his successor, Leo X, the Medici pope, who ascended to the holy throne determined to leave his own mark on the papacy.

    There was, however, a problem. The Sistine Chapel was already painted. Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino had long since added a thick layer of masterpieces all the way round the walls, and Michelangelo had now nabbed the remaining space. What, though, if a temporary solution could be found? A way of bringing great art into the chapel in such a manner that it could be taken out again? If Michelangelo’s young rival, Raphael, were to design a set of tapestries for the lower levels of the Sistine Chapel, which would only be displayed on the most important papal occasions, would they not appear even more special? At this point, we need to remember that tapestries were the most precious art form of the day. In our world, they are outrageously underappreciated: when we visit a stately home, tapestries are sights we skip past. But in Raphael’s time, they were mind-bogglingly expensive. A fine painting might take a man a month to paint, but a fine tapestry would take 10 men a year to weave. They were made of such precious stuffs, too. Look carefully at the Raphael creations Pope Benedict is sending us and you will see gold threads and silken knots; fiendishly complicated perspectival effects and incredibly skilful woven illusionism. When Leo X chose to make his contribution in tapestries, he was upping the ante.

    You probably know already about the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael. It is one of the defining anecdotal competitions of the Renaissance: Michelangelo was old, angry and homosexual; Raphael was young, handsome and charming. Finding themselves in the Vatican together, these two geniuses on opposite ends of the experience scale embarked upon a game of aesthetic one-upmanship that resulted in some of the era’s greatest art. I am a Michelangelo man by instinct. But I’m not blind, and I can see full well how Raphael in his tapestries surpassed his usual self and created a sweep of images of truly heroic brilliance. Technically, his weavings constitute an addition to the existing decor of the Sistine Chapel; emotionally, they attempt an audacious conquest of the lower levels. I speak on this with some authority because I have seen them in situ. You can reread that sentence as often as you wish, and it will still say the same thing. Yes, I have seen the tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.

    They usually hang in their own gallery at the Vatican. In fact, the last time they returned to the Sistine Chapel was for a single day in 1982. Before that, nobody is certain if they were briefly on show in the last century or the one before. A month ago, however, a call came from the V&A. Would I like to go to Rome to see the tapestries hanging in the Sistine Chapel? Would I what? With some immediate tearing-up of my summer plans, I was soon EasyJetting it to Rome to witness one of the rarest sights in art.

    Having spent much of my art-historical life begging to be allowed into the Vatican, just for a moment, just to see that painting over there, strolling into a largely empty Sistine Chapel through wide-open doors was a weird experience.

    It turns out that Benedict XVI, to his eternal saintly credit, is an art lover. He knows about Raphael, he knows about the tapestries, he knows about the cartoons, and he imagined it would be a welcome gesture from a visiting pontiff to engineer a British reunion of the two. In the old days — in the reigns of the other popes — the process might have taken a couple of decades or so. But this particular negotiation was, as I understand it, settled in a matter of weeks. Benedict may look like Uncle Fester from The Addams Family, but he seems actually to be the most artistically progressive apostle to perch on the sacred throne for several centuries.

    When Leo X’s demented predecessor, Julius II, rebuilt the chapel and brought in Michelangelo to paint the vault, he left a ring of painted curtains covered with his family’s coat of arms all the way round the chapel’s lower walls, where you could not miss them. These family advertisements are not much to look at. Inevitably, your eyes swivel quickly upwards towards Michelangelo’s astonishing ceiling. But when I strode into the Sistine Chapel this time, I was confronted, instead, by a whole new ring of stories; an entire new stratum of meaning; a fresh level of iconographic action. Magnificently full already with so many superior religious sights, the chapel now had Raphael tapestries as well, where the painted curtains used to be, and seemed ready to burst.

    Back in London, the reason why the paper cartoons for the tapestries are in such fine condition is because they were not, originally, seen as artworks in themselves. Their function was to supply Flemish weavers with practical designs. To make this easier, they were cut into handy strips and stored in boxes. Only centuries later, when they were stuck back together and shown as a whole, could we actually see how fine they were.

    The V&A has seven of the cartoons, which are being compared in London with four of the tapestries. The first thing you will notice is that one set of images faces to the right and the other to the left. This is because the tapestries had to be mirror images of the cartoons: as if reinventing the weaver’s genre were not enough, Raphael needed also to envisage his pictures back to front.

    Three of the tapestries come from the series tracing the story of St Peter, the first bishop of Rome and, therefore, the first pope. In the Miraculous Draught of Fishes, probably the first design Raphael drew, Peter is seen on his knees on a boat, thanking the seated Jesus for filling his nets with fish. To which Christ replies: “I will make you a fisher of men.”

    Something to look out for in both versions of the image is the vivid way in which the fish in the nets and the cranes on the riverbank have been described. That is fiendishly difficult weaving. Look also at the colour of Christ’s robe as it is reflected in the water in the V&A cartoon. See how pink the reflection is compared with the robe itself? That is how much the robe has faded.

    Another of the earliest designs, Christ’s Charge to Peter, shows Jesus handing his first disciple a huge key — the key to the kingdom of heaven. When you compare the tapestry to the cartoon, notice how the weavers in Brussels, off their own bat, have added big gold stars to Christ’s robes to brighten them up and give him some bling.

    As you know, also found in the Sistine Chapel, on the far wall from where the tapestries were hung, is Michelangelo’s terrifying Last Judgment, in which the goodies are shown going up to heaven while the baddies slide down into a sizzling hell. Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that the fate of the baddies awaits you if you miss this unique opportunity to see the tapestries conjoining with the cartoons. But why take the risk?