Raphael’s Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel and Rome’s Paleochristian Past
Assistant Professor, The College of Wooster
Commissioned by Leo X in 1515, Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel tapestries have been called “the Parthenon sculptures of modern art.” Depicting the acts of Saints Peter and Paul, these artworks are at once celebrated and controversial. In spite of their renown, they have resisted interpretation: the complexity of the tapestries’ design and execution, as well as the paucity of contemporary records, raises importantquestions about the intended meaning of their subjects. I propose that Raphael’s compositions were conceived in conversation with the mural cycles in Rome’s ancient apostolic basilicas, and that their display in the Sistine Chapel reimagines the ecclesiastical programs of Old St. Peter’s and San Paolo fuori Le Mura.Against the backdrop of the Fifth Lateran Council, their evocative ritual symbolism suggests a papal vision of Roman antiquity that was not only classical, but also powerfully conversant with the spiritual landscape of the early Christian city.