Monday 1: The Raphael Cartoons 


The Raphael Cartoons are some of the most famous artefacts in the Victoria & Albert Museum. A cartoon, in this sense of the word, is a drawing on a piece of stout paper. The cartoon will then be used as a template to create a textile known as a tapestry. Of the 10 Raphael cartoons that were commissioned, there are only 7 that survive, all of which can be seen in the V & A. They depict the biblical stories of St. Peter and St. Paul. This particular cartoon tells Luke’s gospel story known as “The Miraculous Draught of the Fishes.” (Luke 5: 1-11)


The story goes…One morning, while talking to a crowd of people, Jesus sees two fishing boats at the water’s edge. Jesus joins them and gets into Peter’s boat. He learns that after tirelessly fishing all night they had not caught anything. He then persuades them to go back out into the water and let down the nets once more. Miraculously the nets become filled with fish. At witnessing this miracle, Peter flings himself to his knees and shouts out to Jesus “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” This is the moment we see in this particular cartoon. Peter is in blue and kneeling in the now overflowing boat, amongst the fish, his hands together as if in prayer, his body gently leaning towards Jesus to the left who is sitting on the edge of the boat, one hand raised in blessing. Notice how both Jesus, Peter and the man in green have halos around their heads to symbolise them following Jesus and the Word of God. Other men are seen struggling to pull the net into the boat which nearly breaks as it is so heavy with fish.


At this time, in the early 1500s, the Pope was having a revamp of the Vatican in Rome, the seat of the Catholic Church. Italy is in its heyday of artistic prowess during the Renaissance* period and so Popes are commissioning great works of art by the most esteemed artists of their day. One of the most important rooms of the Vatican is the Sistine Chapel. It is where the College of Cardinals gather after the death or resignation of a Pope in order to decide who will succeed him. The Sistine Chapel houses some of the most famous commissions including the beautiful fresco ceiling by Michelangelo. To accompany Michelagnelo’s fresco, in 1515 Pope Leo X commissioned the artist Raphael to create a set of 10 cartoons so that they could then be made into extravagant tapestries by Pieter Van Aelst in Belgium.  


Raphael would have used charcoal as an outline and then painted it in distemper which is a mixture of pigment, water and glue. Once created they would have been cut into strips for the long voyage to Belgium. You can see the lines where the cartoon has been glued back together, for example, in the sky between Jesus and Peter.  Even in this cartoon, which is essentially created only to copy the outline, we can see the skill of the artist. The figures have a naturalism and individuality to them. He has a clear knowledge of anatomy as seen in the figure’s muscles, although some say that he has made their muscles more pronounced to echo those of Michelangelo’s frescoes. He also has created depth in the drawing with his use of atmospheric perspective. 


It is a testament to Raphael’s skills that these seven cartoons are known as some of the greatest examples of Renaissance art outside of Italy. They have been in this country since 1623 when they were bought at auction under the bequest of Charles, Prince of Wales (who would later be King Charles I). For all his faults, Charles was a keen patron of the arts. His father, King James I, had four years previously set up his own Royal tapestry workshop in Mortlake, west London to rival the one in Belgium. Raphael’s Cartoons now share their gallery space with tapestries made in Mortlake using these cartoons. You will notice how the tapestries are a mirror image of the cartoons because the cartoon would be laid upside down onto the wool, silk, gold and silver as it was weaved, creating the same image but a flipped version of it. See the Mortlake tapestry version of "The Draught of the Fishes" below, on loan by Duke of Buccleuch, how Jesus now appears on the right hand side.





















The original tapestries made from these cartoons, during the 1500s, remain in the Vatican City, Rome. These days they are displayed in the Vatican Museum. However in February 2020, just before the global lockdown, the tapestries were put on display for one week only inside the Sistine Chapel to commemorate 500 years since Raphael’s death so that the Chapel could be experienced as it was always intended. 


*Renaissance period - began in 15th Century when artists and scholars started to look back at classical art and gave it a “rebirth” or revival.