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Raphael: Stitches in the fabric of time

A new show unites Raphael's designs and the tapestries based on them for the first time since they were commissioned for the Sistine Chapel. By Michael Glover

Let's begin by indulging in a strange exercise in reverse chronology. There is a room in the Victoria and Albert Museum, a fairly narrow, nave-like, barrel-vaulted space, called the Raphael Gallery. That is where seven of the Cartoons that Raphael created for a great cycle of tapestries called The Acts of the Apostles have hung for the past half century. Those tapestries were commissioned from Raphael by the Medici Pope Leo X, in 1515, and they were destined to be displayed in the recently refashioned and refurbished Sistine Chapel beneath Michelangelo's great ceiling frescoes.

Those Cartoons were first brought to the V&A by a van drawn by eight horses, supported on rubber slings to ease their bumpy passage, in 1865. Before that, they had been on display at Hampton Court. (John Constable did copies of them in the early 19th century.) They had first been purchased by the Prince of Wales in 1623 – he was shortly to become Charles I of England – for a tapestry manufactory in Mortlake. Sometime in the 1690s they were reassembled and glued to canvas backings. Hey presto, they became the monumental paintings that we can see today, in an extraordinarily good state of preservation. So the Cartoons have been in this country since early in the 17th century and on display at the V&A for almost 150 years.

The tapestries created from those Cartoons could tell a quite different story. Most of the original set – there were many additional sets made down the centuries as Raphael's fame grew and grew – were put on display for the first time in the Sistine Chapel on 26 December 1519. Not all of them though, because they were not all finished in time. They had been made by expert weavers in Brussels. After that first triumphal showing, they suffered grievous reversals of fortune. Two years after they first went on display, they were pawned off to pay for the Pope's funeral. They returned in due course. After the Sack of Rome by the imperial armies in 1627, some of them were whisked away. They found their way back in the fullness of time. Almost two centuries later Napoleon, a great pillager of all things ecclesiastical, whisked them off to Paris, in 1798. They eventually found their way back to the Eternal City. During the course of centuries they suffered injury. Not all of them survived. Some survived in fragments. The ones that did survive were occasionally used on great ecclesiastical occasions – Goethe reports having seen them at Corpus Domini. In fact, he went to Rome precisely in order to see them. Nowadays the tapestries live in peace in the Vatican Museums.

Tapestries and Cartoons have lived entirely independent lives – until this week. Now, and for the next seven weeks, we will have an opportunity to see something rare and marvellous. For the very first time, four of the original tapestries are on display within eye view of their original Cartoons. We can look from one to the other in order to see what those expert Brussels weavers made of Raphael's Cartoons. We can see for ourselves how they changed some brilliant product of the Italian High Renaissance into a slightly different thing – something quintessentially Flemish in its detailing, its treatment of light, its sense of depth in the landscape.

To see them side by side is to recognise some of those differences. The tapestries are brilliant, portable samples of decorative art, fashioned from wool, silk and gilt-metal-wrapped thread. They glister when the light catches them. They have a surface brilliance. They stink of spilled ducats. The Flemish weavers have played fast and loose with the iconography. Peter's cloak changes from yellow to red. Patches of brilliantly fussy vegetation – the Flemish weavers were masters at this sort of thing, and evidently wanted to show off their skills – spring up quite unexpectedly. The extraordinary range of tonal subtleties in the Cartoons, the deep, brooding qualities of the colours, for example – that ability Raphael has to paint such an extraordinarily wide range of blues, for example, as if there were no such thing as blueness – plays no part at all in the tapestries.

What is a Cartoon? The Italian word is cartone, and it means a preparatory design. These are things that were made to be used – and they were used, repeatedly. In essence, they are frescoes – the greatest fresco cycle of the Italian Renaissance – made from a combination of pure colour, animal glue and water. Glanced at superficially now, they look like monumental paintings, but if you scrutinise the surfaces more carefully, you can see how they were pricked with needles to outline the figures of the main characters, and then cut vertically into sections so that a whole team of weavers could then sit side by side and work on each one simultaneously. Each one consists of between 175 and 200 sheets.

Their subject matter is a perfectly calculated interweaving of religion and power politics. Pope Leo X was a son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, a tycoon who had ambitions to create a great dynasty. The subject of the cycle itself is the Acts of the Apostles. It tells the story of the miracle-making of St Peter and St Paul. St Peter was the man appointed by Jesus to be the founder of the Christian church. He was in fact the first pope, and he was said to be buried beneath St Peter's Basilica in Rome. St Paul was the church's first – and greatest – preacher and missionary. Everything that the paintings tell us culminates in Leo X, the latest manifestation of God's vicar on earth. And, as if to emphasise the link between the apostolic succession and Medici papacy, the borders of some of the tapestries include the Medici arms and accounts of their entry into Rome.

One of the most interesting stories – untold by the tapestries themselves, of course – concerns the rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael. Michelangelo loathed and feared his younger rival. He was supplanted by him at the Papal Court. He witnessed the extraordinary range of Raphael's skills, as designer, painter and assiduous student of the antique. He saw him appointed architect of St Peter's. He must have witnessed the sweetness of Raphael's temperament, and envied him his adroitness, his coolness, his ability to be diplomatic and courteous when diplomacy and courtesy were needed... How he must have breathed a sigh of relief when Raphael died so young, at the age of 37 in 1520, allowing him to live on unchallenged for almost half a century.

The fact that the tapestries did not remain in the Sistine Chapel, or were not returned there, is interesting, and Michelangelo's professional jealousy cannot be discounted as a factor in this. Michelangelo did not complete his Last Judgment on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel until 1641, long after the death of Raphael. The fresco swooped down so low that the space could no longer accommodate a tapestry too. Thus Michelangelo destroyed the possibility of Raphael's tapestries ever again been shown in their full sequence. He had won the battle of the titans.

Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000; vam.ac.uk), 8 September to 17 October