Usually there's only one place to look in the Sistine Chapel: up, at Michelangelo's stunning ceiling depicting the Creation.
But recently, for just 24 hours, the focus of attention was on the walls – when the Vatican Museum's priceless Raphael tapestries, designed for the Sistine but rarely hung there, were exhibited ahead of a journey to London, where they will be shown, for the first time, alongside the original designs, the so-called Raphael Cartoons.
"Raphael's tapestries haven't been hung in the Sistine Chapel since 1983, when they were shown to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth," said Professor Arnold Nesselrath, director for Byzantine, medieval and modern art at the Vatican. "They date back to the 16th century, and they were made in Brussels by master-weavers using Raphael's cartoons as their patterns," he added.
Because the weavers worked from back to front, the cartoons are mirror-images of the tapestries. Their worth was quickly realised; in 1623 they were moved to England, and have remained here, the property of the Crown. The tapestries, meanwhile, were taken to Rome. But now, they and the cartoons are to be hung side by side at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where the cartoons – deemed too fragile to move – are permanently housed. "This was beyond anything we believed possible," said Mark Evans, senior curator at the V&A. "The Vatican Museum has never lent four of its Raphael tapestries at the same time to anyone before. Pope Benedict XVI's visit on 16 September opened the door to the loan – and we're thrilled about it."
Raphael's tapestries and cartoons will be on show from 8 September to 17 October.