Cartoon Saints

There is a lot to see in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Not only is it a place where a good portion of the stuff the British looted around the world at the height of their empire is stored, it also has a design streak, including clothing. The exhibition of modern clothes was a bit disappointing, though. There have been many little tweaks in men’s fashion since Edwardian times, but the few examples they have do not make for spectacular viewing precisely because these little tweaks are more interesting in writing or pressed against your own skin than looked at in a glass box. The older, more extravagant costumes were peppered around the museum and they were striking enough, but obviously cloth that has aged for a few hundred years is not in its peak form anymore. Women’s fashion is another thing. It changes more rapidly and the costumes are more varied, but I find it too whimsical to understand. This summer, they have had an exhibition called The Story of The Supremes that has many costumes worn by that group and it might have been interesting enough, but after a few minutes in the blaring Motown music — it seems like everything has to have a soundtrack these days — I had to make my escape.

I ended up in an incredible room that was almost deserted. High ceilings, dim lighting, a few benches, and enormous, fantastic tapestries on the wall. The Raphael Cartoons, portraying scenes from the lives of St Peter and St Paul, rivaled the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in their time and should be as famous and admired as Michelangelo’s great work is, but here they hung, deserted, it seemed, in this exquisite room. They are big, about 3X5 and 3X3 meters, and they were designed to be templates for tapestries that would be woven according to their design, but they are also works of art in themselves. It is interesting to note that Poussin was impressed with them and borrowed stuff from these sketches; they are sketches in the end, however fantastic. And they are also what the Pre-Raphaelites thought represented the corruption of painting through classical formalism.

Enough talk. Here’s what they look like:

Source: Wikipedia

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

Source: Wikipedia

St Paul Preaching in Athens

Source: Wikipedia

Christ’s Charge to Peter

Source: Wikipedia

The Death of Ananias

Source: Wikipedia

The Healing of the Lame Man

Source: Wikipedia

The Conversion of the Proconsul

Source: Wikipedia

The Sacrifice at Lystra
Not only are these perhaps the most influential pieces of High Renaissance painting, they also have a very interesting history after their original purpose was fulfilled. They were completed in 1516 and in 1623 they were bought by none other than Charles I, the famous headless King of England. He paid only 300 pounds for them, because they were, after all, only templates for tapestries. I don’t know if anyone knew then that they were to become absolutely priceless in a little while. Three of them are missing, so there’s even that bit of mystery. During and after the reign William III the cartoons took their proper place as works of art and they had a couple of rooms built especially for them, including the one at the V&A. Somewhere along the line, they created Classicism and gave the Renaissance ideal a new twist, and afterwards they acted as something Modernists could define themselves against. Not bad for a bunch of sketches.

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