Every Easter for four centuries, 13 priests would gather in the Vatican Apostolic Palace to have their feet washed by the pope. The ceremony became one of the most important symbolic rituals of Holy Week and took place under the gaze of Jesus, as portrayed in a 16th-century tapestry depicting Leonardo da Vinci’s (1495–98).
That tapestry is now one of the key highlights of In Leonardo’s Shadow,” a new exhibition at the Palace of Venaria that explores the Holy Thursday ritual at the papal court. It is is joined by the woven papal throne canopy of Pope Clement VII, created by renowned Flemish tapestry weaver Pieter Van Aelst and, like the Leonardo-esque tapestry, on loan from the Vatican Museums.
As suggested by the show’s title, the tapestry is a copy of Leonardo’s mural painted in the refectory of Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie. Woven from gold and silver-covered silk, the tapestry was a wedding gift from King Francis I of France to Pope Clement VII when the former’s son married the latter’s niece, Catherine de’ Medici. Work on the tapestry likely began in the late 1510s, and some have claimed that Leonardo was aware of the tapestry during his time in France from 1516 to 1519.
“In 1518, Francis I purchased a large painted copy of Leonardo’s from a Milanese goldsmith,” Alessandra Rodolfo, one of the exhibition’s curators, told Artnet News. “It was placed in the Armory of the Castle of Amboise where it could be copied to make the model or cartoon for the tapestry.”
Around the same time, Clement VII commissioned the papal throne canopy from Van Aelst, whose workshop had already woven the famed Raphael tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.
With these artifacts, wrote Rodolfo in , “the exhibition recreates the traditional setting of the Holy Thursday ritual in the majestic Ducal Room of the Vatican Apostolic Palace and later at St Peter’s.”
Also on show at “In Leonardo’s Shadow” are 18th-century paintings of the ritual, 19th-century lithographs, and two never-before-exhibited drawings from the Vatican Museums collection.
See more images from the exhibition below.