IT HAS been called ‘the most beautiful drawing in the world’ – and now it is taking pride of place once again at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

The study of the heads and hands of two apostles, made by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael weeks before his death, is set to be part of an ‘extraordinary’ exhibition opening tomorrow.

It is among 120 of the Old Master’s works that will be on display, in what museum curator Dr Xa Sturgis has hailed as the most impressive gathering of his drawings in three decades.

About 50 are already in the Ashmolean’s permanent collection but are so rare and fragile that they seldom go on display.

But in the ‘once in a lifetime’ exhibition from Thursday, they will be joined by others from the Royal Collection, the British Museum, the Uffizi in Florence, 25 works from the Albertina in Vienna and the famous ‘Head of a muse’ drawing – from a private American collector – sold for £30m in 2012.

Dr Stugis said: “Not since 1983, when an exhibition of drawings from British collections was on view at the British Museum, has such an extraordinary gathering of Raphael drawings been shown to the public.”

Thanking lenders and supporters, he added: “It has enabled us to give people a once in a generation opportunity.”

Paul Cézanne’s £3m oil painting, Auvers-sur-Oise, was infamously stolen from the Ashmolean in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2000 and has not been recovered. 

But security will be tight for the latest highlight to grace the museum. ‘Raphael: The Drawings’ brings together more than 100 works with a combined value thought to be in the tens of millions of pounds.

Head of a muse – a drawing owned by a private collector – sold for £30m alone in 2012.

Along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael – who lived from 1483 to 1520 – is seen as one of the great masters of his time.

The drawings in the exhibition have been taken from throughout his career, including his early days in Umbria and those in Rome when he was most in demand.

At that time he was working on major projects such as frescoes for the Vatican.

Co-curator Ben Thomas said the exhibition showed Raphael’s work in a ‘completely different light’.

He added: “Many people think of Raphael as the Mozart of painting – his work is beautiful but perhaps at times too perfect. Yet these drawings give us an intimate view of his thinking process.

“They gave him an opportunity to constantly experiment and change things.

“Only 400 survive around the world now, but he probably made thousands.”

The exhibition will run until September 3.