A Raphael in wool, silk and golden thread: the tapestry of the Miraculous Peach

Replicas of Raphael's tapestries helped spread the artist's fame around the world: one of the most beautiful is that of the Miraculous Peach, preserved at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino and on display until December 15, 2020, at the Centro Trevi - TreviLab in Bolzano.

A masterpiece of considerable size in silk thread made between 1653 and 1659 at the Lefebvre manufactory, preserved at the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino (and until December 15, 2020 on display at the exhibition Raphael. Woven Masterpieces. Fortuna e mito di un grande genio italiano, at the Centro Trevi - TreviLab in Bolzano). The cartoon designed by Raphael Sanzio (Urbino, 1483 - Rome, 1520) between 1515 and 1516 for the series that the artist executed for Pope Leo X in order to complete the Sistine Chapel (the cartoons are currently kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) was used for its creation. When Urbino arrived in Rome he executed for Pope Julius II the frescoes of the Stanza della Segnatura, the first of the Vatican rooms to be decorated by him, and from here began a continuous collaboration with the papal court. Later in fact, in 1515, Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to paint a cycle of ten tapestries intended to decorate the lower part of the walls of the Sistine Chapel.

Widespread between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in European courts and among the wealthiest families, tapestries, large in size and highly prized, favored the mobile decoration of certain rooms to show off on certain occasions and allowed the depiction of a wide variety of scenes, from religious to mythological, from historical to literary, as well as the representation of scenes of courtly life. The most famous centers of production were in Flanders, and in Brussels in particular the workshop of Pieter van Aelst excelled, to whom Raphael’s painted cartoons were entrusted to make the splendid tapestries.

Manifattura Lefebvre (dal disegno di Raffaello), Pesca miracolosa (1653-1661 circa; arazzo in lana, seta e filo d'argento dorato, 420 x 480 cm; Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)
Lefebvre Manufactory (from Raphael’s drawing), Miraculous Fishing (c. 1653-1661; tapestry in wool, silk and gilded silver thread, 420 x 480 cm; Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche)

Raffaello, La pesca miracolosa (1515-1516 circa; acquerello su carta, cartone per arazzo, 320 x 390 cm; Londra, Victoria and Albert Museum)
Raphael, The Miraculous Peach (c. 1515-1516; watercolor on paper, tapestry board, 320 x 390 cm; London, Victoria and Albert Museum)

The ten tapestries intended for the Sistine Chapel depict the Stories of Saints Peter and Paul. The first two to be completed were the Miraculous Fishing and the Pasce oves meas (the moment when the apostles look at Christ who has just entrusted Peter with the keys to Paradise, at the same time pointing him to a flock of sheep), which refer to the respective passages in the Gospel of Luke and John. However, the first seven were completed by 1519 and were displayed on December 26 of that year at the Mass of St. Stephen held in the Sistine Chapel, while the other three by 1521. In addition to the Miraculous Fishery and the Pasce oves meas, tapestries were then made depicting the miracles of the early apostles and episodes from their preaching that refer to the Acts of the Apostles: the Healing of the Cripple, the Death of Ananias, the Stoning of St. Stephen, the Conversion of St. Paul, theBlinding of Elima, the Sacrifice of Lystra, St. Paul in Prison, and St. Paul’s Sermon to the Athenians. The main scene is depicted in the center, and sometimes high lower borders with episodes from the life of Leo X and St. Paul or with grotesques, coats of arms and feats of arms of the pope enriched the tapestry.

They are true masterpieces that are highly prized, since they are made of silk fabric, silver and gold, and their beauty impressed even Goethe, who in 1787 interrupted his stay in Naples to admire in Rome these splendid artifacts that had been displayed on the occasion of the Corpus Christi procession. Today they are kept in the Vatican Museums, while Raphael’s cartoons are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, as they were purchased in the second decade of the 17th century by the English crown.

The Miraculous Peach on display belongs, as already stated, to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche. This is because the cycle of tapestries made in Pieter van Aelst’s workshop in Brussels was a model for replicas and re-editions that were made by Flemish, French and English manufacturers until the nineteenth century. Replicas of it (now lost) were wanted by Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England, and these were followed by those at the Ducal Palace in Mantua and the Palacio Real in Madrid.

Seven tapestries from the Royal Palace in Milan that once belonged to statesman and cardinal and collector and patron Giulio Mazzarino were donated to the Ducal Palace in Urbino in 1922. The latter had come into possession of only three tapestries from a series produced, from copies of Raphael’s originals, in the English manufactory of Mortlake between about 1630 and 1635; he then decided to commission their completion, and for this he chose the manufactory of Jean Lefebvre, active in Paris. The seven missing tapestries were made between 1653 and 1659, but with the same festoon and caryatid borders as the English series. He also had the depiction of the arms of the Earl of Pembroke, the one who had commissioned the dismembered English series, replaced with his coat of arms, which stood out at the top of all the tapestries.

The scene of the Miraculous Fishery, made in the Lefebvre manufactory with wool, silk and gilded silver thread, depicts the episode narrated in Luke’s Gospel (5:1-10): after an unsuccessful fishing trip, Christ compels Peter and Andrew, two poor fishermen in the Lake of Galilee, and their companions to lower their nets again. These are miraculously filled with fish, thus revealing the divine nature of the Lord. Raphael made evident in the faces of the apostles all the awe and veneration provoked by this miracle; a scene that the Urbino artist sets in a watery landscape that is among the most evocative in the history of art.

The precious tapestry of the seventeenth-century series played an important role in the fortunes of Raphael’s art: indeed, the tapestries, together with the prints, helped to spread knowledge of Raphael’s artistic production, as well as to increase his fame and myth throughout the world.

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