“You can breathe!”

Several times around 2:30 on weekday afternoons this month, I close my eyes, hold my breath, and wait for three magic words, usually delivered in a victorious tone: “You can breathe!”

As we find that tiny, often elusive threshold, I distract myself by planning how I can celebrate clearing each challenging hurdle. Sometimes it’s of the material nature, but most often, it’s to get outside, revel in the Fall colors, and find rejuvenation in fresh air.  

Hearing the all-clear last Friday, the obvious occurred to me. With the leaves nearing peak color, it was the perfect time — finally — for a Sunday-afternoon drive to Ferncliff Cemetery in Springfield, Ohio.

Covering over 240 acres of rolling hills, this pastoral landscape is surprisingly situated nearby well-known city landmarks I’ve visited for years. Now, I’ve concluded that Ferncliff is the true hidden gem of the “Champion City.”

As Springfield prospered during the early years of the 19th century, the city quickly outgrew its previous burial grounds, namely, the wooded setting of Greenmount, established in 1844. After just 20 years, eight vacant lots in Greenmount remained, so City Council members wrestled with the challenge again. This time, the newly established Springfield Cemetery Association proposed purchasing land along North Plum Street, notable for some distinctive features.

With the Lagonda River on one side and rugged, fern-covered cliffs and waterfalls on the other, the site was both unique and picturesque. Finding inspiration in Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cincinnati’s Spring Grove Cemetery and Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery, association members opted to follow the rural cemetery movement, popular at the time. Loved ones were buried in beautiful park-like settings, where those who mourned them could find peace, quiet and comfort amid picturesque vistas, winding drives, sloping lawns, and the natural beauty of changing seasons. Thoughtfully, artistically designed monuments would commemorate the accomplishments of community members, enlightening and instilling civic pride among future generations. On a practical note, burials would take place in a more hygienic setting, above and away from the densely populated city.

Other natural landmarks at the site were utilized in the cemetery’s development. At the foot of Sylvan Hill, a cave was built to serve as a holding vault for those who died during the winter, when the frozen ground made it difficult to dig graves. A circular mound was determined to be a fitting site to bury some of Clark County’s fallen Civil War soldiers, honoring their sacrifices with a commemorative monument. 

Appropriately christened “Ferncliff” on April 4, 1864, the cemetery held its first interment just over two months later, for an eight-year-old boy who died of spotted fever. Notable early monuments include mausoleums for William Gladfelter, one of the city’s leading carpenters and homebuilders, and for Eliza Leffel Bookwalter, an avid traveler, artist and art collector, who was buried in the cemetery in 1879. Designed by local architect Charles Creger, it features striking stone carvings, such as a scallop shell above the door and columns topped with acanthus leaves. Creger also created plans for the cemetery superintendent’s house circa 1890.

Asa Bushnell, the two-term Ohio Governor who served from 1896 to 1900, began planning his mausoleum in 1897. After participating in the dedication of President Ulysses Grant’s tomb in New York, Bushnell was inspired by its Greek Revival style and engaged Robert H. Robertson, the New York architect who designed his home, to create it. Fashioned from white marble, with 24 columns supporting the roof and decorative bronze grates and doors, the elegant structure is an open-air vault containing six crypts for each member of the Bushnell family.

Dating from 1922, the mausoleum for former Springfield Mayor Charles McGilvray and his wife, Addie, features Art Deco interpretations of Egyptian-inspired funerary art, such as lotus flowers, the symbol of rebirth, and slanted walls in the Egyptian pylon style.

Subsequent improvements to Ferncliff include the creation of a lake at the foot of Sylvan’s Hill, bordered by Bald Cypress trees, in 1887. It was created by and named for Oliver Smith Kelly, a carpenter who made his fortune during the California Gold Rush, turned to manufacturing farm implements, and became a community leader, this scenic spot continues to be a perfect place for picnics – another feature of the rural cemetery movement.  We picnicked beside not only the lake, but the resting place for Phineas Mast, another former mayor of Springfield who manufactured agricultural implements and edited the innovative agricultural journal known as Farm and Fireside.

In the early years of the 20th century, a chapel and entrance gates were added to the cemetery. More recently, Ferncliff’s magnificent trees have led the cemetery to be named an arboretum. It has six Ohio Champion trees, as well as a nationally recognized propagated tree: the Diamond Bark American Beech Ferncliff, a unique crossbred species.  

For more on the history and architecture of Ferncliff Cemetery, read Beautiful Ferncliff: Springfield, Ohio’s Historic Cemetery and Arboretum, by Paul W. Schanher III and Anne E. Benston.

Posted in Architecture, Art, History, Nature/Outdoors, Ohio | 1 Comment

“The best fun follows a duty done.”

 “The best fun follows a duty done,” Henry Ford’s mother observed.

Following that advice, I concluded my incredible summer with a spur-of-the-moment Friday-afternoon jaunt to Centerville, Ohio.

Situated on the high point between the Little and Great Miami Rivers, the crossroads community near Dayton has grown rapidly, but still retains its unique pioneer charm. There, I experienced two legendary attractions: Bill’s Donut Shop, the 24-hour mainstay of third-shift National Cash Register workers; and the state’s largest collection of early stone houses.

When the area now known as Washington Township was settled in the late 1700s, a high-quality natural resource known as Dayton limestone was discovered. The plentiful supply was quarried throughout the area until the 1950s, creating an industry that was used to build homes and outbuildings, businesses and courthouses, sidewalks and curbs, hearths and gravestones. It was even transported to neighboring communities to build locks on the Miami-Erie Canal and buildings in the Shaker settlement at Union Village near Lebanon.

Well-trained builders used the durable limestone to construct both the exterior and interior walls of structures, placing smooth or “dressed” stone on the outside and leftover rubble in between, for insulation. They slanted the walls beside windows to allow more light to enter, and placed long stones called lintels across the tops of the windows and doors. This resulted in cozy structures with 18” thick walls, creating interiors that were cool during the warmer months and cozy during the colder ones. They relied on straightforward architectural designs, allowing the quality of their materials to shine in creating picturesque little houses with Old World charm.

Once, there were about 100 stone buildings in Centerville and Washington Township. About 25 remain, a testament to the quality of both the resource and local craftsmanship. Here’s a look at three of them.

Likely built in 1806 by Aaron Nutt, one of Centerville’s original surveyors, one of the earliest stone buildings in Centerville was owned by Asahel Wright, the great-uncle of the Wright brothers, between 1816 and 1826.

Unique features of this building include solid stone lintels above the first-floor windows and its corner fireplace, also constructed of limestone, with the chimney crossing over to the center of the wall upstairs. Recent research has concluded that this is an example of a Welsh fireplace, reflecting the Welsh ancestry of some early settlers. Its front door was placed to the left, making this a “Three-Quarters house,”different from the centered front doors prevalent in other area buildings. Wooden pegs, not nails, hold the door frame together. A two-story frame addition dating from about 1860 now houses historical displays. The complex also includes a recreated one-room schoolhouse and a tribute to Ida Weller, a Centerville resident who established the Centerville Adult School in the 1930s not only to inform community members about social and economic issues, but also to provide opportunities for self-improvement.

Another small stone dwelling Nutt built around 1814 was believed to have once been his “Sign of the Buck’s Horns” Tavern. Similar in appearance to a Welsh cottage, with a center doorway and one small window on each side, the structure has 20-inch-thick stone walls and was originally a saltbox design, with two rooms downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. Like the Asahiel Wright home, wooden pegs instead of nails were used to construct the window frames. Today the building is used as a research center for the Centerville-Washington Township Historical Society.

Best of all is the Walton House Museum. Built in 1838 by Henry Reece, a Welsh stonemason from Lebanon, the building passed through various owners until William and Miriam Walton bought the home in 1927; it became the historical society’s headquarters in 1971.

The original stone section of the house has two rooms downstairs and a large loft above. Its double front doors, its most distinctive feature, follow an architectural style that was developed first in Virginia and Maryland. Two stone fireplaces with elegant mantels, stand at either end of the downstairs rooms. An enclosed stairway spirals beside one fireplace, leading to the loft on the second floor. It is so steep that iron rings were embedded in the walls to grasp as inhabitants ascended the steps. 

The Waltons took down the original partition between the two downstairs rooms, creating a 30-foot living room. They also added more rooms, furnishing them with the antiques they were fond of collecting.

At the back of the house is the Dr. Jacob Mulford botanic medicine garden, created from a list of herbs Dr. Mulford, a local resident, ordered around the time of his death in 1844. The plants grown in the garden were used by doctors of botanic medicine, a system popular between 1820 and 1850, in which plants were given numbers and combined to form various “prescriptions.” They include bayberry, horehound, dogwood, ginger and blue flags.

For more, read A Sense of Place in Centerville and Washington Township, edited by Howard R. Houser.

Posted in Dayton, History, Museums | 1 Comment

“Have the courage of your convictions.”

I may have good-naturedly ribbed my grandmother about her trademark line, but now I quote her with all seriousness.

During a recent visit to the former home of someone who possessed great courage of his convictions, I understood the power of that advice.

Our story begins two hundred years ago, when a minister named John Rankin and his young family left their home in Kentucky and arrived in Ripley, Ohio, a thriving community along the Ohio River, about 50 miles upstream from Cincinnati. In those days before railroads, Ripley was home to a variety of industries, from boat-building and timber to pork and even piano-making. Because goods were shipped by boat along the river, Ripley became a gathering place, and those residing nearby in both Ohio and Kentucky were familiar with both the town and its residents. It was a wild place, with brawls and shootouts common sights on the streets and in the saloons.

Ripley was also known as an abolitionist stronghold, with a network of supportive Underground Railroad “conductors” who stealthily moved fugitive slaves on their journey northward to freedom, stopping at safe houses along secret routes. Since slaves working in northern Kentucky were often sent to Ripley to run errands, they developed contacts there which helped other slaves escape across the river to Ohio and beyond.

Ripley’s abolitionist tendencies likely appealed to Rankin, whose anti-slavery beliefs had not settled well with his Kentucky congregation. When the Ripley First Presbyterian Church invited Rankin to be its minister, he accepted, bringing his wife, Jean, and their four children with him. In 1823, they purchased a lot on Front Street along the river and had a three-family dwelling built from locally made bricks. The Rankins moved into the apartment on the north side of the building, leasing out the other two to a doctor and the editor of the local newspaper, The Castigator.

It was here that Rankin wrote Letters On American Slavery, in which he explained the evils of slavery to his brother Thomas, a Virginia merchant who owned one slave. Originally released as a series of 21 letters in The Castigator, it would be published in book form, followed by 18 more editions over the next 15 years. Its popularity contributed not only to Rankin’s status as a leading abolitionist, but also to his controversial role in the community. Finding Ripley to be an exceedingly immoral place, Rankin presented his views with a vengeance, taking stands against drinking as well as slavery. He appears to have been a formidable man, uncompromising in his beliefs, and determined to stay, even in the face of hecklers. Truly, he had the courage of his convictions.

The Rankins needed some space in more ways than one, so in 1828, they bought 65 acres of land high above Ripley, on the edge of a 360-foot embankment overlooking almost five miles of the Ohio River and the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky beyond. They cleared the thick forest so they could farm the land, and they built a small brick house which would be their home until 1866. The Rankin family would eventually include 13 children, sleeping as many as three to a bed.

The home was visible from the Kentucky side of the river, so the Rankins placed a lighted lamp in one of their sitting room windows. This light was a beacon for runaway slaves, indicating that the home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. The shutters on that particular window had a lever to adjust the bottom louvers in order to make more light visible from the outside. That shutter was different from all the other shutters on the house.

Night after night, fugitive slaves making their dangerous journey saw the Rankins’ glowing light from the Kentucky shoreline, making their way across the river — either by boat or by foot, if hot weather made the riverbed dry in shallow places — and through a dense thicket of trees and vegetation, protecting them as they climbed the hill to the Rankins’ unlocked home. They spent minimal time there, receiving food, clothing and minor medical attention, if needed, and were quickly on their way to other shelters.

As many as 2,000 runaway slaves climbed the 100-step “Liberty Stairway” the Rankins built that still leads up “Liberty Hill” to the home’s front door; some of the original stone steps closest to the home still remain. One of those fugitives was the inspiration for Eliza, the character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. One of Rankin’s sons studied at Lane Seminary in Cincinnati, where Stowe’s husband, Calvin, taught during the 1830s and 1840s. The Stowes became acquainted with the Rankins, who described how a desperate, determined Kentucky slave mother carried her infant child across the dangerously icy Ohio River, pursued by a slave catcher and bloodhounds, and was directed to the Rankins’ house as the first stop on her journey to freedom during the winter of 1838. Mrs. Stowe was so moved by the dramatic story that she resolved to include the riveting scene in her best-selling book, but did not reveal the Rankins’ involvement so as not to expose them.

A carved image of Eliza crossing the Ohio River near Ripley appears on one of 34 unique settees representing Ohio history that were created for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933-34. It is made of native black walnut; the seat is upholstered in hand-hooked Ohio wool. It is on display in the Rankin House’s visitor center.

When not ministering to his congregation, Rankin traveled frequently, preaching the cause of abolition throughout the state. His beliefs led him and his family to be frequent victims of mob violence, verbally abused and assaulted. Fugitive slave-hunters prowled around their home, even setting fire to the barn on occasion and shooting at a couple of Rankin sons. But Rankin and his family persevered.

Today, the Ohio River is wider and deeper than it was in those days, when sections of it could be crossed without a boat, even on foot. While the outbuildings and crops of the original Rankin farm are gone, the Ohio History Connection has restored the home to how it would have appeared in the 1840s, the high point of when the Rankins and their 13 children lived there. Architectural research uncovered remnants of hand-stenciled wall decorations in the sitting room and downstairs master bedroom, which have been reproduced. Other highlights of the 2014 restoration included reconstructing the fireplace the Rankins would have used for cooking, as well as repainting the exposed brick exterior in its original brownish-red hue. When a new visitor center was built in 2017, archaeologists focused on the site of the former kitchen wing, uncovering a variety of artifacts from daily life on the property.

Ripley was also home to John Parker, a former slave who worked as an iron manufacturer by day and as an Underground Railroad conductor by night. He was also an inventor with a series of patents to his credit, including a soil pulverizer and a portable screw press for tobacco. Besides touring his home, you can also read how he risked his life to help more than 900 fugitive slaves across the Ohio River in his autobiography, His Promised Land.

From Ripley, take the short drive to Georgetown, Ohio and take in some places on the Land of Grant Trail, a 17-site journey commemorating the early life of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States. In fact, Grant attended Ripley College, which was founded by one of Rankin’s sons.

April 27, 2022 marked the 200th anniversary of Grant’s birth in nearby Point Pleasant. He spent his boyhood in Georgetown, living for 16 years in the sturdy brick home his father, Jesse Grant, built. Inside the home, restored to its appearance in 1839 when Grant left for West Point, see a special display of Grant family objects for the bicentennial. These include Jesse’s telescope, a silver child’s mug engraved with “Little Clara” that belonged to Grant’s sister, handmade leather boots that Grant wore as a boy, and the document box Grant used when he commanded Union armies during the Civil War. It’s also fitting to spend time with Grant, Ron Chernow’s hefty biography of the 18th president.

Reading Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, Ann Hagedorn’s remarkable work of narrative nonfiction, inspired me to visit the Rankin House in Ripley. It might prompt you to do the same.

For more on John Rankin and his home, read Beacon to Freedom: The Story of a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, by Jenna Glatzer, as well as “Ohio Historical Society Album: Rankin House” and “Crossing the Ice: The Story of Ohio’s Most Famous Fugitive Slave,” both in the January-March 2008 issue of the Ohio History Connection’s TIMELINE.

Posted in History, Museums, Ohio, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) | 1 Comment

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer.”

This snapshot was taken 50 years ago this month, when the little traveler posed in front of a uniquely designed building in Wapakoneta, Ohio that had opened just weeks before.

Visitors were greeted by a curious sight: earth mounded around a steel-reinforced concrete structure so that it would resemble a rising full moon.

Created by a former Wapakoneta architect, the futuristic building was the culmination of then-Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes’ desire to construct a museum in Wapakoneta that would honor the achievements of the United States’ space program and astronauts from Ohio, particularly one native son of Wapakoneta who became the first man to walk on the moon during the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s famed Apollo 11 mission. Funded by a $500,000 contribution from the state of Ohio, with matching donations from Wapakoneta residents, the museum was intended to educate visitors about space travel and exploration, to inspire future astronauts, and to take a chronological look at the life and career of Neil Armstrong.

We returned to Wapakoneta recently to see the museum, just after the 50th anniversary of its July 20, 1972 opening, which occurred three years to the day after Armstrong’s historic moonwalk.

Born on August 5, 1930 on his maternal grandparents’ farm, a few miles southwest of Wapakoneta, Neil Armstrong developed an interest in aviation and aircraft design at a young age, building model airplanes and reading aviation magazines. In 1944, the Armstrong family returned to Wapakoneta. Before graduating from Blume High School in 1947, Armstrong worked at a grocery store, a hardware store, and a drug store; played the baritone horn in the school band and formed a jazz group with friends; watched movies at the Wapa Theatre; and was a member of the Boy Scout troop sponsored by the St. Paul United Church of Christ.

As a young man, Armstrong served as a pilot in the Korean War, studied aeronautical engineering at Purdue University, and then worked as an aerodynamics research pilot.

The museum displays four craft Armstrong flew throughout his career. One is the Aeronca 7AC Champion airplane, manufactured in Middletown, Ohio, which the 15-year-old Armstrong learned to fly in order to obtain his pilot’s license. It is complemented by aeronautical flight charts, log books and a sign from Port Koneta, the former Wapakoneta airfield where Armstrong learned to fly.

Armstrong’s first spacecraft, the Gemini VIII space capsule, was what he and copilot David Scott used in 1966 to conduct the first successful docking between two crafts in orbit in space. Sit inside a life-sized mockup of the capsule to appreciate the cramped quarters in which astronauts of the early space programs worked. You can also try your hand at landing the lunar module and bringing the space shuttle in for a touchdown.

Outside is the F5D Skylancer that Armstrong used in the early 1960s to develop the abort-launch procedure that would safely return craft in NASA’s Dynamic Soarer Program back to the runway in case of an emergency. New this year is the Learget 28 Longhorn that Armstrong flew in the late 1970s, in which he set five world aviation records for altitude and time to climb.

Armstrong became an astronaut in 1962, a year after President John Kennedy proclaimed that the United States would put man on the moon before the decade was through. That transpired on July 20, 1969, the culmination of the successful Apollo 11 mission commanded by Armstrong, accompanied by Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins.

While Collins flew the command module Columbia, Armstrong and Aldrin landed the lunar module known as the Eagle on the moon’s surface. Armstrong exited the Eagle and said his now-famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” He and Aldrin spent two hours exploring the moon’s fine, powdery surface, collecting geological samples and performing lunar surface experiments. Taking in the landscape’s “magnificent desolation,” they described the moon as having “a stark beauty all its own.”

My favorite item on display at the museum is the four-ounce piece of basalt from the moon’s surface, which Armstrong and Aldrin collected during the Apollo 11 mission and brought back to Earth. Tricia Nixon Cox, standing in for President Richard Nixon, presented the moon rock to the museum on the day of its opening.

Standing nearby is one of the three custom-fitted spacesuits Armstrong had for the Apollo mission. Constructed of 27 thin, soft layers of natural and synthetic rubber, the bulky suit protected him from heat, yet was flexible and light enough for him to walk. The outfit was completed with an oxygen outlet, aluminum buttons, layered gloves, and helmet with a special gold-plated visor designed to protect the astronauts from the harsh, unfiltered light on the surface of the moon. Armstrong’s Gemini spacesuit is also on display.

Under the 56-foot-wide white dome in the center of the museum, the Astro Theater shows film footage documenting the moon landing on that historic day. I think seeing the shadowy black-and-white images that were broadcast via a live television feed makes the whole museum-visit experience.

Worldwide, the excitement over this historic event was palpable; an estimated 650 million people watched the mission on television. But its commander’s mild-mannered appeal also had everything to do with its success. Armstrong’s quiet, unassuming ways did much to focus public attention on the commitment and teamwork exhibited by the scores of people who had worked so hard to secure the first successful moon landing. He appreciated his good fortune as a history-maker, but being an engineer meant more to him.

“I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer,” Armstrong is quoted as saying. “As an engineer, I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.”

In later years, Armstrong strove to avoid public attention, living on his Warren County, Ohio farm, teaching at the University of Cincinnati, being a spokesperson for the Chrysler Corporation, and serving on corporate and nonprofit boards. I met him by chance in the 1980s, when we happened to be sitting at neighboring tables at the Red Door Tavern in Grandview and he showed a boy his finger, which had been severed in an accident on his farm and then re-attached. He passed away on August 25, 2012.

For more, read First on the Moon: A Voyage with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.; First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong, by James R. Hansen; A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin; and The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon, by Alison Donald and Ariel Landy. Watch First Man, a motion picture adaptation of Hansen’s book; Armstrong, a 2019 film narrated by Harrison Ford; Apollo 11, a film by Todd Douglas Miller, with newly discovered footage and audio recordings of the Apollo 11 mission; and First Man on the Moon, a NOVA documentary.

Posted in History, Museums, Ohio, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society) | 1 Comment

Are those walls painted Prussian blue?

It’s the color of stamps, uniforms…and now, possibly, museum walls.

Created as an alternative to indigo and expensive lapis lazuli, rich, dark Prussian blue is one of my favorite hues. And I think I have spotted it as the perfect background for the incredible works on display at the Columbus Museum of Art in Raphael: The Power of Renaissance Images: The Dresden Tapestries and Their Impact.

Presented by the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) of Dresden, Germany, this special exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, the influential Italian High Renaissance artist. The exhibition is on view for the first time in the United States, and only at the Columbus Museum of Art, through October 30. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are among other museums loaning items for the exhibition. It’s a welcome sight for us Wanderlusters who are still having to stay close to home.

The exhibition focuses on six monumental 17th-century tapestries woven from designs Raphael created. After exploring the origin of those painted compositions and their translation into the tapestries, the exhibition presents works by Renaissance and Baroque artists that reinterpret the Biblical scenes presented in the tapestries. It continues by describing how the tapestries were acquired by various owners. It concludes with examples of how Raphael’s revolutionary contributions to Western art, as seen through the tapestries, not only altered the subsequent development of European tapestries, but also influenced other works by later artists.

Rich, successful and popular, Raphael was regarded as a trend-setter in Western art, even after he died in 1520, aged only 37. Remarkably talented, with an interest in Classical art and antiquities, he was especially skilled as a pictorial storyteller, composing painterly scenes in which figures were in perfect harmony with their surroundings. In 1516, he was commissioned by Pope Leo X to create designs for tapestries that would hang in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel beneath Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling fresco, commissioned by the preceding Pope, Julius II. Each tapestry was to depict a scene from the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles, focusing on the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Working in Rome, Raphael designed the compositions, sometimes using those in his workshop for models. Some of the drawings were executed by his assistants. After Raphael’s drawings were finished, they were separated in vertical strips that were tacked to a wall. A chalk outline of the drawing was made, and then it was painted. The exhibition includes two full-sized reproductions of the resulting painted compositions, or cartoons, that weavers transformed into images on cloth.

The cartoon strips were then given to the weavers to use as guides for color and outlines. Because of the way tapestries were woven, the cartoons were put below the table-like looms on which the tapestries were worked. Since the tapestries were executed from the back, they were mirror images of the cartoons. Teams of five weavers, sitting side by side at the looms, worked on each tapestry for eight months. The Vatican tapestries were woven with gold thread, on looms in Flanders, or modern-day Brussels. Each measuring over 20 feet tall, the tapestries were installed at the Vatican between December 1519 and December 1521.

More than 50 editions of the tapestries were created in Flemish, French and English weaving workshops between the 16th and 18th centuries. Made from luxurious materials, and in such a time-consuming manner, tapestries were an expensive art form of the period; having them in a collection communicated the owner’s prestige, wealth and power. One set of the tapestries was woven for King Francois I of France, around 1533, and was burned in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Another set was made for Henry VIII to hang in Westminster Palace; they were later sold.

About 100 years after Raphael’s death, the future King Charles I of England acquired Raphael’s cartoons for the Vatican tapestries. In 1698, William III commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to create a special gallery at Hampton Court to house the cartoons. Although they remain as part of the Royal Collection, they are on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where they are installed and on view.

The future king also established a tapestry-weaving manufactory in Mortlake, near London, to create duplicates of Raphael’s Vatican tapestries. The Dresden tapestries were most likely produced here, using silk and wool. In 1728, Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland – also known as Augustus the Strong for his physical strength – purchased a set of the tapestries for his impressive art collection, which became the core of what is today the Old Masters Picture Gallery.

Unlike the guiding cartoons, the tapestries are surrounded by ornate borders incorporating floral motifs, cherubs, images of Old Testament prophets, and coats of arms. Another interesting difference is that the Vatican version of the tapestries depict Christ and the Apostles with halos, and Christ giving the keys to the gates of Heaven to Peter, the English tapestries do not, in keeping with the Protestant faith.

Four of the tapestries relate to St. Peter. The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, the beginning of the series, pictures Jesus recruiting the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John to become disciples and help spread His message; the fishermen are pulling up a net with a miraculous abundance of fish. The cranes beside the boat are said to represent the Pope, always alert and watchful. Raphael’s depiction of the figure steadying the boat was inspired by an ancient Roman statue symbolizing the river god Tiber, the river that runs through Rome, a copy of which is installed nearby.

Christ’s Charge to Peter, a companion tapestry, shows Christ after his Resurrection, charging Peter to care for his flock of faithful Christians as His first representative on earth, reinforcing the Papal authority that the tapestries were commissioned to express. Two rare drawings in Raphael’s hand – one a small fragment of a study of the Apostles – were made in preparation for the large cartoon of this scene.

The Healing of the Lame Man depicts St. Peter’s first miracle, performed in front of the Beautiful Gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. The ornate, spiral columns were once thought to have been based on columns in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and later, the Baldachin, the large sculpted bronze canopy that Bernini designed for over the high altar of the church. The architecture in the background of Paul Preaching is said to be similar to Bramante’s Tempietto, San Pietro in Rome.

Those depicting events related to St. Paul are The Conversion of the Proconsul, also known as The Blinding of Elymas. The Sacrifice at Lystra represents Paul’s miraculous healing of a lame man, after which onlookers mistake them for pagan gods and prepare to offer them a sacrifice. A plaster cast of an altar stone similar to one pictured in the tapestry is also on display.

The last episode of Raphael’s series is Paul Preaching at Athens, during which the Apostle intends to convert his audience to Christianity. Listeners express a range of reactions; the standing figure behind Paul in the red cap may represent Pope Leo X, who commissioned the tapestries.

Prints, etchings and paintings by noted artists Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley reflect Raphael’s compositions, demonstrating the international impact of these creations. Copies of paintings by Raphael further reveal the esteem in which the Renaissance master was held. Works by Albrecht Dürer, the German artist who was Raphael’s contemporary, demonstrate how Dürer brought the principles of the Italian Renaissance to northern Europe. In fact, Dürer may have visited the tapestry workshop in Brussels while Raphael’s cartoon for Christ’s Charge to Peter was on the loom. Similarly, three drawings from Weimar, Germany, believed to be based on Raphael’s cartoons, were likely seen by the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who lived in Weimar.

The viewing experience is enhanced through audio narration of exhibition themes, Raphael’s life and legacy, the tapestry-weaving process, and details of the two rare preliminary drawings. In one of the galleries, hear a marvelous soundtrack of recorded period music supplied by two Columbus-based groups performing period music: the Fior Angelico chamber chorus, and The Early Interval, which performs Renaissance and Baroque music on historical instruments.

Several related programs occurring during the run of the exhibition include Stephanie Storey, author of Raphael: Painter in Rome, who will discuss Raphael and the stories behind his cartoons for the tapestries. Anne Dumas, the museum’s adjunct curator of European art, and Andrew Shelton, professor of history of art at the Ohio State University, will explore examples of Raphael’s influence in England and France.

For more, read the companion volume to the exhibition, Raphael: The Power of Renaissance Images: The Dresden Tapestries and Their Impact, edited by Stephan Koja. Also, watch The Raphael Cartoons: Making the Tapestries, a video produced for the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2021.

Posted in Art, England, Germany, History, Museums | 2 Comments