Raphael Paints his Cartoons for Tapestries at the Sistine Chapel

The Raphael Cartoons are seven large cartoons for tapestries, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, painted by the High Renaissance painter Raphael in 1515-16 and showing scenes from the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles.

They are the only surviving members of a set of ten cartoons commissioned by Pope Leo X for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Palace, which are still (on special occasions) hung below Michelangelo's famous ceiling. Reproduced in the form of prints, they rivalled Michelangelo's ceiling as the most famous and influential designs of the Renaissance, and were well-known to all artists of the Renaissance and Baroque. Admiration of them reached its highest pitch in the 18th and 19th centuries; they were described as "the Parthenon sculptures of modern art".

Raphael, whom Michelangelo greatly disliked, was highly conscious that his work would be seen beside the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which had been finished only two years before, and took great care perfecting his designs, which are among his largest and most complicated. Originally the set was intended to include 16 tapestries. Raphael was paid twice by Leo, in June 1515 and December 1516, the last payment apparently being upon completion of the work. Tapestries remained enormously prestigious; the Sistine set cost at least five times as much as Michelangelo's ceiling. Most of the expense was in the manufacture: although the creation of the tapestries in Brussels cost 15,000 ducats, Raphael was paid only 1,000.

The cartoons are painted in a glue distemper medium on many sheets of paper glued together (as can be seen in the full-size illustrations); they are now mounted on a canvas backing. They are all slightly over 3 m (3 yd) tall, and from 3 to 5 m (3 to 5 yd) wide; the figures are therefore over-lifesize. Although some colours have faded, they are in general in very good condition. The tapestries are mirror-images of the cartoons, as they were worked from behind; Raphael's consciousness of this in his designs appears to be intermittent. Raphael's workshop would have assisted in their completion; they were finished with great care, and actually show a much more subtle range of colouring than was capable of being reproduced in a tapestry. Some small preparatory drawings also survive: one for The Conversion of the Proconsul is also in the Royal Collection, and the Getty Museum in Malibu has a figure study of St Paul Rending His Garments. There would have been other drawings for all the subjects, which have been lost; it was from these that the first prints were made.

The seven cartoons were probably completed in 1516 and were then sent to Brussels, where the Vatican tapestries were woven by the workshop of Pieter van Aelst. Various other sets were made later, including one acquired by Henry VIII of England in 1542; King Fran├žois I of France had another of similar date. Cartoons were sometimes returned with tapestries to the commissioner, but this clearly did not happen here. The tapestries had very wide and elaborate borders, also designed by Raphael, which these cartoons omit; presumably they had their own cartoons. The borders included ornamentation in an imitation of Ancient Roman relief sculptures and carved porphyry. The tapestries were made with both gold and silver thread; some were later burnt by soldiers to collect the precious metals. The first delivery was in 1517, and seven were displayed in the Chapel for Christmas in 1519 (then as now, their display was reserved for special occasions).

Raphael knew that the final product of his work would be produced by craftsmen rendering his design in another medium; his efforts are therefore entirely concentrated on strong compositions and broad effects, rather than felicitous handling or detail. It was partly this that made the designs so effective in reduced print versions. The Raphael of the cartoons was revered by the Carracci, but the great period of their influence began with Nicolas Poussin, who borrowed heavily from them and "indeed exaggerated Raphael's style - or rather concentrated it, for he was working on a much smaller scale". Thereafter they remained the touchstone of one approach to history painting until at least the early 19th century - the Raphael whose influence the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to reject was perhaps above all the Raphael of the cartoons.