Among all the amazing art that the Vatican Museums have to offer, the Vatican Gallery of Tapestries is surely one of the most astonishing. Located in the very heart of the Vatican Museums, this gallery displays an enormous amount of tapestries, produced by the brilliant artist, Raphael Sanzio, and realized by Belgian tapestry makers.
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What are Tapestries
As an official tour guide of the Vatican, I have to admit that many people scurry through this room as quickly as possible. Tapestries are not really something in vogue at the moment, so I get it. However, my hope is that after reading this article you will walk a bit slower through this room when you visit the Vatican Museums.
The short answer to ” what is a tapestry” is quite simply, a decorated carpet. Bear in mind that the previous definition I gave is not flattering, but let’s speak plainly. That is not to say that many of them are not beautiful pieces of artwork as well!
Tapestries became a popular form of artwork in the 14th century, however there are examples of tapestries from much earlier in the Middle ages.
What is the Purpose of Tapestries?
Tapestries are made of wool, silk, and silver & gold thread. By using these textile products, the images take on a beautiful quality in not only their shine from the metals but also from the fabrics used. The most obvious purpose of Tapestries was for their ornamentation value. Tapestry makers were highly prized and on many occasions would make more money than painters.
However, besides their beautiful ornamentation value, there was also a much more practical purpose. Their purpose was also to warm up rooms. In the early middle ages, these tapestries would have been housed in drafty, old stone castles. By putting this ” rug” on the wall, it allowed the heat to be trapped in its fabric and therefore warm up a room.
In our case in the Sistine Chapel, The tapestries absorbed the heat from the braziers that burned in the chapel. This is why today when you enter the Vatican Museums, it is one of the only rooms with air conditioning!
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Where is the Gallery of Tapestries
You can’t miss the Gallery of Tapestries when you visit the Vatican Museums! The reason is that in order to visit the Sistine Chapel you have to pass through this gallery. It is sandwiched between the Gallery of the Candelabra and Gallery of the Maps.
This impressive hallway is 245 feet long. It houses large tapestries on both walls down the entire hallway. On the left wall are tapestries that were designed by the hand of the painter Raphael and commissioned by Pope Clement VII ( Pope 1523-1534). These designs were called cartoons. These cartoons were then sent up north to Belgium where there were master tapestry makers. These particular tapestries were designed by the Flemish artist Pieter van Aelst.
What tapestries will you see in the Gallery of Tapestries
The Gallery of Tapestries possesses beautiful tapestries on both right and left walls. On the right wall are tapestries commissioned by Pope Urban VIII (Pope from 1623-1644). These tapestries are literally stories about his life as pope and honestly not as interesting as the ones on the left, therefore we will stay focused on the left wall tapestries.
On the left wall you have tapestries depicting stories of the life of Jesus Christ. Personally the most moving tapestry for me is the “Slaughter of the Innocents”. This is a series of three tapestries that tell the story of how King Herod ordered all the male babies under the age of two to be killed. The idea is that he was looking for the new ” king” who had been born- aka Jesus. It didnt’ work and Jesus and his family escaped the slaughter.
Another interesting tapestry is the Resurrection of Christ. The tapestry shows a triumphant Christ exiting from the cave where he was buried. A little secret if you are in this room is to stare at Jesus’ eyes from one side of the painting to the other- his eyes will follow you! A little Renaissance eye trick.
Before you leave the room, remember to look up as you walk through as well. There are a series of very impressive trompe l’oeil paintings executed on the vault back in 1789.
According to the Official Vatican State Archives, the tapestries in this room designed by Raphael were put in the Sistine Chapel in 1531. They were moved to their current room only in 1838
Raphael’s work on the tapestries
The tapestries on the left wall are also famous because the designs for them were created by the famous painter Raphael. Once he made the drawings, he sent them to Brussels for the final preparation. Unfortunately, as even the historian and architect Giorgio Vasari claims, “Raphael met several initial difficulties while preparing his project”.
First of all, Raffaello had to proceed from the bottom to the top to draw the cartoon when he usually drew starting from the top. This is due to the fact that his designs would be reversed during the weaving process. In Belgium, they used low-warp looms which produce a reverse image of the original design.
Secondly, the painter inevitably had to compare his work on the tapestries with the majestic one produced by Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel. This is no easy feat, considering that the Sistine Chapel was one of the biggest masterpieces of all time. However, I feel that Raphael held his own.
Raffaello managed to use Michelangelo’s work as a source of inspiration and completed his work two years later, in 1516, as the Vatican payment registers confirm.
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