Raphael Cartoons as never seen before on V&A website

The recent national lockdown in 2021 forced many businesses to close their doors again, including museums, galleries and sites of national heritage. But art lovers can now get their cultural fix from ‘Explore the Raphael Cartoons’, the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exciting new online project.  

In 2019 the V&A partnered with Factum Foundation to capture high-resolution colour photographs, infrared and 3D scans of the seven surviving preparatory designs, known as cartoons, made by Raphael (1483-1520) for a cycle of tapestries. Created in Pieter Coecke van Aelst’s (1502-1550) workshop in Brussels between 1515 and 1521, the enormous tapestries were commissioned by Pope Leo X to hang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel.  

According to Ana Debenedetti, the Curator of Paintings and Drawings at the V&A, Raphael’s polychrome designs “challenged the weavers in Brussels to, as it were, paint with threads”. 

In 1623 the cartoons travelled to England after they were purchased by Charles I (1600-1649). Over 200 years later, Queen Victoria loaned them to the South Kensington Museum, which eventually became the V&A. Experts consider the stunning cartoons as “one of the greatest treasures of the Renaissance”. 

Each cartoon measures a whopping 5 metres by 3.5 metres, depicting scenes from the lives of saints Peter and Paul. Due to their vast size and the huge glass display cases in which they reside, it is difficult to truly appreciate the Renaissance artist’s fascinating work when visiting the Raphael Courts.     

Launched this week on the V&A website, the project’s digital images offer an unprecedented close-up of the monumental masterpieces. On the greyscale infrared images, it is even possible to see the black chalk and charcoal under-drawings that are normally invisible to the naked eye. 

Debenedetti remarked how the “incredible level of detail” can take viewers “back 500 years, when the last people to see that were Raphael and his team of apprentices…emotionally, it’s something we’ve never been able to offer visitors before”. 

Digitisation of the cartoons took five weeks and was “like a military operation” recalled Adam Lowe, the founder of Factum Foundation. The Raphael Courts were also refurbished in honour of the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death in 2020, although the gallery has not yet welcomed any visitors due to coronavirus restrictions. Once the gallery reopens museum-goers can look forward to accessing the high-resolution browsers and a host of interactive features through their smartphones.  

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