Raphael created exquisite tapestries for the Sistine Chapel but unless you are in Rome this weekend, the chances of seeing them reunited where they original hung is practically nil.

That is because a one-week exhibition of Raphael’s 10 surviving tapestries ends this Sunday, February 23. It is only the third time in the past 50 years they have been reunited in the Sistine Chapel. The enormous tapestries left their usual home in the Vatican Museums to return to the chapel to mark the anniversary of the Renaissance artist’s death.

“We wanted for the celebration of 500 years of Raphael’s death to give the opportunity to share the beauty that is represented by the tapestries together in this beautiful, universal place that is the Sistine Chapel,” the director of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, said in a statement. She described it as an “important moment.”

Thomas Campbell, the director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who is a tapestry expert, was in the chapel on Tuesday morning to see them unveiled. “You just wanted to woop and sing,” he wrote on Instagram, resisting the temptation to do either because of the chapel’s rule of silence.

Installation at the Sistine Chapel. Courtesy Vatican Museums.

While it is rare for the tapestries to return to the Sistine Chapel at all, it is just as unusual to see them side by side as they are typically on rotating display at the Vatican Museums protected by glass. Now, hanging once again on their original 16th-century hooks, visitors can admire the tapestries alongside frescoes and paintings by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Signorelli, and, of course, Michelangelo. (The older artist was not a fan of his younger rival, Raphael.)

Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to create 16 tapestries in 1514 but several have been lost over time. They were completed for St. Stephen’s Feast Day, December 26, in 1519. It is possible that Raphael did not get to see the works installed as he died six months later on April 6, 1520, aged 37.

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Once in a while, something happens that is so out of the ordinary, so delightful, so close to your heart, that you just want to woop and sing. I couldn’t do so in the Sistine Chapel (“silencio!”), but that was my state of mind as I viewed the Raphael “Acts of the Apostles” tapestries, on display for one week to celebrate the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist’s death. This is only the third time they have been displayed in this, their original location, in the last fifty years. The tapestries were commissioned by Pope Leo X sometime in late 1514 and woven in Brussels between 1516 and 1521. The set was the most prestigious commission that Raphael received, placing him in direct competition with Michelangelo whose famous ceiling frescoes had been completed in 1512. It cost five times more than the ceiling frescoes because of all the gold thread. Raphael’s designs were groundbreaking, not least because they forced the Brussels weavers to reproduce life-size figures engaged in moments of high drama, in perspectival settings – a far cry from the decorative style that characterized contemporary Flemish tapestries. Today, the Raphael tapestries are damaged and faded, but thanks to careful lighting the current display is about as close as we’ll come to seeing them as they looked when they first arrived in Rome. At the time, Paris de Grassis, the master of ceremonies of the papal chapel, stated that common opinion agreed that there was nothing more beautiful in the world. Writing some years later, Vasari commented: “This work was executed so marvelously, that it arouses astonishment in whoever beholds it, wondering how it could have been possible to weave the hair and beards in such detail, and to give softness to the flesh with mere threads; and it is truly rather a miracle than the work of human art, seeing that in these tapestries are animals, water, and buildings, all made in such a way that they seem to be not woven, but really wrought with the brush.” Five hundred years later that still holds true @musei.vaticani #sistinechapel #raphael #actsoftheapostles

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The tapestries were woven in the workshop of Pieter van Aelst in Brussels, which worked with Raphael’s painted designs, known as cartoons. Each tapestry is made of silk and wool thread, and weighs between 110 to 130 pounds. They measure about 35 square yards. They cost five times Michelangelo’s ceiling because of the cost of gold thread and the labor required to weave them. Seven of the original cartoons are in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hence the presence at the unveiling of its director, Tristram Hunt.

The tapestries have survived many close calls, ranging from the being stolen in the Sack of Rome in 1527, and seized by Napoleon in 1798.

See the some of Raphael’s exquisite “Acts of the Apostles” tapestries below.

Paul Preaching at Athens. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Sacrifice at Lystra.. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Blindness of Elymas. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The conversion of Saint Paul. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Death of Ananias. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Healing the Lame Man. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

The Stoning of Saint Stephen. Courtesy the Vatican Museums.

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