20 October 2010

S Thomas's, Raphael, and Leo X

Happening to find myself in London, I drifted into the V and A to see the Raphael tapestries which the Holy Father has lent on the occasion of his State Visit. There should, of course, have been lots more goodies from the Vatican collections; Dr Ratzinger, simple, cultured, soul, had thought that the people of England would welcome a great artistic bonanza. He didn't reckon with the determination of the Atheist Classes to prevent the Visit being an occasion of joyful exuberance for the community as a whole. But the V & A couldn't resist the opportunity to show four of the Sistine tapestries beside the original cartoons from which they were woven, housed in the V & A from the royal collection.

What tremendous fun (and what a shame the Enemies of Joy prevented so much more from coming across). And how at home members of my congregation will find themselves at the exhibition (which is free). Our High Altar has a good copy of Raphael's Madonna di Foligno - the first altarpiece he painted after his arrival in Rome, and showing as Donor the Secretary of Pope Julius II. As I beheld it, a penny dropped in my mind. One of the mysteries about the picture of which ours is a copy is a thunderbolt apparently about to hit a house in the background. This has elicited various traditional aetiologies - ex. gr. that the picture is an ex voto done after a thunderbolt failed to do significant damage to the donor's house. But the tapestry and cartoon of Christ's Charge To Peter show a burning house on the skyline in the background. Was this just the sort of tiny dramatic detail Raphael liked to include?

The twisted 'Salomonic' pillars in the Marian porch of the University Church here in Oxford are are presumably the result of the impact of the arrival of the cartoons in England in the reign of Bl Charles Stuart; they appear prominently in the Healing Of The Lame Man.

And the repetitions of the Medici arms everywhere reminded me of the familiar sight each morning, as I turn over the page from the Preface to Te igitur, of a reproduction of the corresponding page in a Medici Missal.

Among the Acknowledgements in the book accompanying the exhibition (good value, hardback, £10) is the name of Good Marini. His Office graciously lent a copy of the Diary of the Papal Master of Ceremonies covering S Stephen's Day 1516, when the tapestries were first put up in the Sistine Chapel. The book is displayed open at that day; the entry painstakingly records that thirty cardinals were at Mass with the Pope; that Cardinal de Valle "Missam cantavit, licet non satis bene"; and then goes on describe the massive impact the tapestries had upon all who saw them.

No comments: