This section is from the book "Tapestries; Their Origin, History And Renaissance", by George Leland Hunter. Also available from Amazon: Tapestries; Their Origin, History, And Renaissance.
The occasion of the weaving of this set of tapestries was the founding of a chapel, in the Brussels church Notre Dame du Sablon, by Francis de Taxis, imperial postmaster-general, whose death in 1517, before the completion of the tapestry, devolved upon his nephew and successor Jean-Baptiste de Taxis the pious duty of executing his last wishes.
About Raphael's designs for Pope Leo X's Acts of the Apostles tapestries there is nothing transitional, nothing Flemish, nothing Gothic. Panels and borders alike represent the full and free expression of the Italian Renaissance. It is evident at first glance that the painter of these cartoons knew little about tapestry texture. The problems set the weaver were not textile problems but paint problems, as the result proves. The Raphael cartoons did more harm to the art of tapestry-weaving than all other influences combined. The greatness of the artist and of his achievements misled the world, and caused critics to applaud in tapestry what should never have been put in tapestry at all. The side borders of the Vatican set of the Acts of the Apostles are decorative works of art of the highest quality; but the bottom borders that imitate bas-relief, and the panels that imitate painting, are valuable rather as documents in the history of art than as masterpieces of tapestry.
Nevertheless, by contemporaries and by posterity these tapestries were praised without end. They were admired by Francis I and Louis XIV, Henry VIII and Charles I, Charles V and Philip II. By engravers, by painters, and by weavers they were copied over and over again. The woven copies are to-day among the chief treasures of the Royal Spanish Collection, the Imperial Austrian Collection, the French National Collection, the Berlin Museum, Hampton Court, the Beauvais Cathedral, the Cathedral of Loretto, the Dresden Museum. Of the cartoons the Duke d'Aumale said that "they are, together with the Parthenon marbles, England's most beautiful art possessions," and "as examples of Raphael's work unexcelled except, perhaps, by the Chambers of the Vatican".
The tapestries were first shown on December 26, 1519, in the Sistine Chapel for which they were planned. The company assembled represented the learning and refinement of the world. There were red-robed cardinals and velvet-capped painters, gaily clad young noblemen and sombre gowned scholars, and foreign ambassadors in the picturesque attire of their various countries. All were enthusiastic. They were unable to express the full extent of their admiration. "Everyone present," wrote one of the guests, "was speechless at the sight of these hangings, and it is the unanimous opinion that nothing more beautiful exists in the universe".
The Miraculous Draft
Plate no. 83. Raphael's Acts of the Apostles. The Miraculous Draft of Fish, at the Vatican. One of the set of ten woven by Pieter Van Aelst for Pope Leo X. On account of the narrowness of the spaces they were to fill in the Sistine Chapel, only part of the set had side borders. The bottom borders are woven imitations of bas relief picturing scenes in the life of Leo X before he became Pope, and in the life of Saint Paul. The lower part of the left side border of the tapestry illustrated was cut off when Rome was sacked in 1527, and was later replaced by the coat of arms of Constable Montmorency and by two Latin inscriptions, the first memorializing the return of part of the set to Pope Julius in by this Constable in 1553, the second the repairing of the tapestries by Pope Pius VII in 1814 at great expense.
Another guest wrote: "After the Christmas celebrations were over, the Pope exposed in his chapel seven tapestries (the eighth not being finished) executed in the West [in Flanders]. They were considered by everybody the most beautiful specimens of the weaver's art ever executed. And this in spite of the celebrity already attained by other tapestries - those in the antechamber of Pope Julius II, those made for the Marchese of Mantua after the cartoons of Mantegna, and those made for the King of Naples. They were designed by Raphael of Urbino, an excellent painter, who received from the Pope one hundred ducats for each cartoon. They contain much gold, silver, and silk, and the weaving cost 1,500 ducats apiece - a total of 16,000 ducats ($37,000) for the set - as the Pope himself says, though rumour would put the cost at 20,000 golden ducats".
The tapestries were woven in Brussels under the supervision of the Flemish painter Barend Van Orley, friend and pupil of Raphael. Brussels was then the world's principal centre of tapestry production, Arras, that gave its name to the English arras and the Italian arazzi, having been captured and ruined in 1477 by Louis XI. The atelier selected was that of Pieter Van Aelst, tapestry-weaver to Philip the Handsome, and to Philip's son, the future Emperor Charles V.
Plate no. 85. Raphael's Acts of the Apostles. The Miraculous Draft of Fish, cartoon at the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. Note that the cartoon is opposite in direction from the tapestry, and is left - handed - that is to say Christ is represented as making the benediction with his left hand. Oddly enough the Miraculous Draft of Fish in the Beauvais Cathedral is in the same direction as this cartoon, except for Christ's hand.
Of Van Aelst's success in interpreting the cartoons Vasari wrote: "One is astonished at the sight of this series. The execution is marvellous. One can hardly imagine how it was possible, with simple threads, to produce such delicacy in the hair and beards and to express the suppleness of flesh. It is a work more Godlike than human; the waters, the animals, and the habitations are so perfectly represented that they appear painted with the brush, not woven." An opinion that shows how little Vasari knew about tapestry, and about what constitutes excellence in tapestry (See chapter VIII (The Texture Of Tapestries. Arras Tapestries. Greek And Roman Tapestries. High Warp And Low Warp. The Process Of Weaving)).