The Sistine Chapel Adorned with Raphaelite Tapestries for a Week

February 26, 2020

For the first time since 1983, the ten large tapestries designed by the genius of Raphael, illustrating the life of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, are being exhibited in the Sistine Chapel, at eye level, under the ceiling decorated with frescoes by Michelangelo, as originally planned.

Scheduled to be open from February 17 to 23, 2020, this exposition marks the launch of the year of Raphael, the famous Renaissance master recalled to God 500 years ago.

It was at the request of Pope Leo X that Raphael (1483-1520) drew the original designs for the tapestries that were to go down in history as the “Raphael sketches.” The drawings are all evocations of the New Testament in response to the scenes from Genesis painted by Michelangelo.

The sketches, duly rolled up, were sent to the workshop of Pieter Van Aelst (1502-1550). It is with the help of these designs that the famous Brussels resident was able to make the famous tapestries, using the best techniques. Using an unequaled skill, the Van Aelst workshop weavers mixed together silk thread and thread gilded with fine gold, in order to illustrate as faithfully as possible the scenes from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, conceived by Raphaël Sanzio.

The work has known a troubled posterity. The tapestries were actually pledged to pay for the funeral of Pope Leo X in 1521, then bought back a year later for the coronation of Adrian VI. In 1527 they were stolen during the sack of Rome before being returned, then finally stolen a second time during the French occupation of 1798. It was not until 1808 that the tapestries definitively returned to the Vatican.

Commissioned and designed shortly after Martin Luther lit the fire of his so-called Reformation, Raphael’s masterpiece magnifies the Church founded by Christ on Peter and his successors: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”