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 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, they 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. Admiration of them reached its highest pitch in the 18th and 19th centuries; they were described as "the Parthenon sculptures of modern art".
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. 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.
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. Although some colours have faded, they are in general in very good condition. 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. 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. Some small preparatory drawings also survive: one for The Conversion of the Proconsul is also in the Royal Collection, and the Getty Museum in Malibu has a figure study of St Paul Rending His Garments. 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. Various other sets were made later, including one acquired by Henry VIII of England in 1542; King Francis I of France had another of similar date. Cartoons were sometimes returned with tapestries to the commissioner, but this clearly did not happen here. The tapestries had very wide and elaborate borders, also designed by Raphael, which these cartoons omit; presumably they had their own cartoons. The borders included ornamentation in an imitation of Ancient Roman relief sculpture and carved porphyry. 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).
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". 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 Raphael Cartoons represent scenes from the lives of Saints Peter and Paul. 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):
The cartoons 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 Mortlake (and did, with new borders, paying £500 each) but was well aware of their artistic significance. 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. The fate of the other three cartoons from the set is unknown.
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.
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. 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. 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, and another is in the Royal Academy.
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. 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.
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. All Raimondi and Veneziano's prints of Raphael's designs in Raphael's lifetime were based on drawings, according to both Landau and Pons. 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.
Agostino's engraving was rapidly copied in another well-known version, a four-colour chiaroscuro woodcut by Ugo da Carpi, dated 1518. 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. 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.
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.