The Gallery of the Tapestries or Galleria Degli Arazzi is one of the most important and spectacular rooms inside the Vatican museums. The room can be divided in two, with the tapestries on the left as you enter depicting scenes from the life of Christ and the tapestries on the left showing the life of Pope Urban VIII.
The room is 800 feet long (just under 250 meters in length) and the tapestries, although not originally intended to be originally hung in this room, have been placed here since the 1830s.
As you enter into the Vatican’s tapestry room, you will notice that the tapestries on the right illustrating the life of Pope Urban VIII are overlooked compared to the tapestries showing the life of Christ on the left. It is a bit of a shame because these tapestries were created by the Barberini school (active between 1627 to 1683) and are beautiful.
However, the main draw in the Gallery of the Tapestries are the tapestries designed by Raphael Sanzio on the left. If you recognize the name, that is because Raphael is considered the most important painter of the Renaissance, or possibly of any period.
Raphael was a contemporary of Michelangelo and worked in the Vatican at the same time Michelangelo was the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. In 1514, when Raphael was just 31 years old, he was commissioned by Pope Leo X to design 12 tapestries to depict the life of Christ.
Although they are tapestries, Raphael and his students made what were called cartoons which were large scale drawings that were then shipped to Brussels in Belgium where they were woven in silk and wool at the School of Pieter Van Aelst in the 16th century. Unfortunately, the cartoons have not survived. The drawings were cut down and lost after the tapestries were completed in the tapestry school in Brussels.
Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestries were completed in 1516 but it took longer for them to be ready for display. The magnificent Raphael tapestries were originally designed to be hung on the lower tier inside the Sistine Chapel, so the Gallery in which you see them now is stunning but not the spot they were created for. The tapestries were shown for the first time on the 26th of December, 1519, the year before Raphael’s death.
The twelve Raphael tapestries depicting the life of Christ are hung in chronological order with the first six showing us the childhood of Christ. Three of these tapestries are quite disturbing showing us the Massacre Of The Innocents. These tapestries show detailed scenes of mothers trying in vain to save their newborn babies as they are snatch away and killed. According to the Bible, the murders took place under the orders of King Herod who had learned that the Messiah King was born.
However the most spectacular of Raphael’s tapestries has to be The Resurrection of Christ situated just over halfway down the room.
Visiting the Vatican at the right time is key because it is otherwise difficult to stop in this room because of the movement of the crowds. But whenever you do find yourself in the Gallery of the Tapestries, take a chance to gaze into the eyes of Christ. As you keep walking you will find that through illusionistic methods it appears that Christ’s eyes follow you as you walk down the room. (This is similar to the method used by Leonardo Di Vinci for his painting of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris). And side note, there is one Da Vinci painting in the Vatican, but most people miss it.
Alongside The Resurrection of Christ tapestry is the Supper at Emmaus, where Jesus Christ reveals himself to two of his Apostles after he is resurrected.
It is worth noting that the last tapestry in this room on the left is not by Raphael. This is a Flemish tapestry created in 1594 depicting the death of the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar after he was stabbed 37 times in the year 44 B.C.
Few people look at the ceiling in this room unless they are told. When you see the ceiling you will most likely presume it is a sculpted relief and move on. However, the ceiling is completely flat. The illusion of the 3D appearance is down to the genius of 18th-century artists who learned how to trick the mind and with their skill to paint shadow and light on a 2D surface.
Have another look. It will certainly take you a few moments to believe that the ceiling is painted and no 3D reliefs are mounted to it.
Tips for Visiting the Gallery of the Tapestries
Please take note that while you are allowed to take photos in this room you are not allowed to use flash as the flash can damage the tapestries and the frescoed ceiling. Here is a full guide to taking photos at the Vatican.
To see the Gallery of the Tapestries you must buy a ticket for the Vatican Museums either online or wait in line at the Vatican museum entrance. Buying your ticket online will mean you will skip the line to enter into the Vatican Museums.
The Gallery can’t be missed because the Vatican Museums use a one-way system leading to the Sistine Chapel. The Tapestries are the room before the Gallery of the Maps and after the Gallery of the Candelabra.