For one week only, Raphael’s Sistine Chapel tapestries go on show in Rome

For one week only, Raphael's Sistine Chapel tapestries go on show in Rome
Raphael's tapestries were designed to adorn the Sistine Chapel's walls. File photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP
Priceless tapestries created by the artist Raphael for the Sistine Chapel are on display in their original location this week for the first time in centuries.

Visitors can see all ten tapestries designed by Raphael hanging in the Sistine Chapel until 23rd February, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the artist's death.

Designed in the early 1500s and woven in precious silk, wool and gold and silver thread, the tapestries have not been united in their original location since the 16th century, according to the Vatican's art experts.

When the hangings were carefully returned to the chapel walls on Sunday, it marked the first time in nearly half a millennium that they have been on show as originally intended.

A few of the wall hangings are usually visible in the Vatican Museums, while the larger ones have returned to the Sistine Chapel on special occasions for a day or even just hours at a time.

Commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, Raphael drew full-size designs for the tapestries depicting the lives of St Peter, Paul and other Apostles in the last years before his death in 1520. His sketches were turned into hangings as large as 6 metres by 5 metres by a master Flemish weaver.

The tapestries were intended to compliment Michelangelo's famous ceiling, completed a few years earlier. The dazzling combination prompted the papal master of ceremonies at the time to claim that “It was universally agreed the world had never seen anything more beautiful.” 

Originally hung almost at ground level on the Sistine Chapel's walls (the parts now painted to look like curtains), Raphael's tapestries remained in place for just a few years before the collection was split up, some hangings sold to settle debts, others stolen by invading troops.

The Vatican Museums eventually reunited the set and has spent several years restoring the delicate cloth, which is too fragile to remain on permanent display. 

Some of the tapestries will be loaned to other European museums this year as part of the celebrations of Raphael's 500th anniversary.

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