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The Raphael Cartoons

In 1515, Leo X commissioned Raphael to paint cartoons to be copied for a special series of tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. This set was originally supposed to include 16 tapestries, but only ten were made, of which now only seven cartoons have survived. Raphael, knowing that his work would be in the Sistine Chapel along with what many consider to be Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece, worked hard to make sure his cartoons would be the equal of Michelangelo’s ceiling. The pressure to be Michelangelo’s artistic equal, coupled with the knowledge that Michelangelo rather openly disliked the younger artist, would have made Raphael stressed to make his cartoons amazing pieces of art. However, Raphael also knew that his usual level of detail would not be necessary, since it would be the tapestries, not his cartoons, which would be displayed and which could not have replicated such extreme detail as he usually used.

He also did not use a wide range of colors, even though these could be reproduced by the weavers. Instead, he focused on structure and composition, the level of which in the cartoons was praised by artists for centuries afterwards, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were described as “the Parthenon sculptures of modern art”. The cartoons and tapestries themselves depict scenes from the Gospels, specifically those of Peter and Paul. They include, from the life of Peter, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (John 21: 1-14), Christ's Charge to Peter (Matthew 16:16-19), The Healing of the Lame Man (Acts 3:1-8), and The Death of Ananias (Acts 5:1-10), and from the life of Paul, The Stoning of St Stephen, The Conversion of Saint Paul, The Conversion of the Proconsul or The Blinding of Elymas (Acts 13:6-12), The Sacrifice at Lystra (Acts 16:6), St Paul in Prison, and St Paul Preaching in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).

Later on, his drawings become even more attractive than his paintings, partly because these paintings were in part worked on by his pupils. He used several media, but made excellent use of chalks, accenting and shading with them to give even more detail. Raphael is a wonderful example of how practicing by drawing leads to mastery of painting.