Progression of Art
The Marriage of the Virgin
This painting shows the marriage between Mary and Joseph. As Joseph places the ring on Mary's finger, one of the two disappointed competing suitors is shown breaking his staff. Joseph's staff however is flowering, symbolizing the belief that all suitors carried wooden staffs, yet only the chosen groom's would bloom. A temple is seen in the background, created in the style of the architect Bramante. The use of vibrant colors and the emotional expressions of the figures add a graceful demeanor to the painting, which emanates a sense of the divine blessing of the scene rather than a mere happy temporal celebration.
Also known as Lo Sposalizio, The Marriage of the Virgin was commissioned by the Albizzini family for the chapel of St. Joseph in the Franciscan church of San Francesco of the Minorities at Città di Castello. The painting was inspired by a panel painted by Raphael's early teacher Perugino of The Marriage of the Holy Virgin and also, his famous fresco of Christ Delivering the Keys to St Peter's. The painting differs from Perugino's treatment though by its use of a more circular composition rather than a horizontal depiction, which was more commonly used in paintings of this period.
This painting represents a key point in the development of Raphael as a painter fusing the artistic style of his master Perugino with his own emerging confidence. We see him begin to integrate his own style with composition, perspective, and the daring use of bright tonal colors, all of which would define his later works.
Importantly too, this painting shows the confidence Raphael now had of proclaiming himself as a painter as it is one of the earliest of his signed works. It also shows his mastery of techniques that were being introduced during the Renaissance such as three-point perspective as we see the figures diminish in proportion as they recede into the painting, and the pavement, which leads us to the temple.
Oil on panel - Pinacteca di Brera, Milan
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament
This fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, one of the four Raphael Rooms in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, is one of four paintings in the room which depict separately: philosophy, poetry, theology, and law. The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament represents theology and shows the occupants of a Catholic Church underneath the span of heaven above their sacred altar. The fresco represents Christianity's victory over Philosophy, which is depicted in The School of Athens, the fresco on the opposite wall.
In heaven we see Christ in the center with the Virgin Mary on his right and John the Baptist on his left. God the Father is shown reigning over heaven above Jesus, with Adam to his left, and Jacob to his right. Moses is seen holding the tablets with the ten commandments, and the Holy Spirit is shown at the feet of Jesus. On either side of the Holy Spirit are the four gospels held by cherubs.
On earth are theologians. The original four Doctors of the Church, a title given to Saint Augustine, Pope Gregory I, Saint Jerome, and Saint Ambrose, named in their halos, are seen debating the Transubstantiation; the miraculous conversion of the Eucharistic elements at their consecration into the body and blood of Christ in the earthly form of bread and wine. St Augustine and St Ambrose are seated to the right of the altar and Pope Gregory I and St Jerome to the left. Also present are Pope Julius II, Pope Sixtus IV, Savonarola, and Dante. All together this fresco depicts over 100 figures. In Raphael's rendition The Disputation takes on more than a depiction of the Eucharist. Instead, it becomes a dynamic search by theologians for the truth embodied in the mystery of the Eucharist.
This fresco, painted when Raphael was only 27 years old, represents his first significant commission to redecorate what were to become Pope Julius II's private apartments. Unfortunately, it involved painting over frescos by other important Renaissance painters including Piero della Francesca and Raphael's teacher Perugino. The Stanza della Segnatura was used by Julius II as a library and private office and takes its name from its use later in the sixteenth century as the highest court of the Holy See presided over by the pontiff Segnatura Gratiae et ilustitiae.
Raphael won the commission to paint the four rooms in direct competition with both Michelangelo, who was at the time working on the Sistine Chapel, and Leonardo da Vinci. This is said to have incensed Michelangelo who would later accuse Raphael of plagiarism, spreading rumors that Raphael had stolen into the Sistine Chapel to have a sneak preview of Michelangelo's work. The source of the animosity was however probably no more than that of competition between two extremely talented professionals vying for the favor of the same client.
Fresco - Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome
The School of Athens
This fresco, also in the Stanza della Segnatura, is on the wall opposite the fresco showing The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.
Although called The School of Athens, the title refers to philosophers from the classical world rather than any particular school of philosophy. The gestures of the philosophers depicted in the fresco have been subject to considerable academic interpretation and debate, however it is not clear how much of their philosophy Raphael would have been familiar with. What is important is the way in which Raphael has gathered all the most famous of the classical philosophers within a marvellous Renaissance building, the architecture of which points to Bramante's designs for the new St Peter's Basilica. Many of the philosophers are recognizable through their iconography, which would have been widely understood at the time and are drawn from busts recovered from archaeological excavations. We see Plato (said to be a portrait of Leonardo painted in homage) and Aristotle in the center carrying their well-known works Timeus and Ethics respectively. Also identifiable are Pythagoras in the foreground, Euclid on the right, Zoroaster holding the heavenly sphere, Ptolemy holding the earthly sphere, and Diogenes on the stairs holding a dish. The scholar leaning over Pythagoras is said to be that of the Arab philosopher Averroes who is credited with bringing the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle to the West.
Legend has it that Raphael poked an artistic dig at his great rival Michelangelo by painting his portrait as the face of the Philosopher Heraclitus, leaning against a block of marble. Heraclitus is often called the weeping philosopher due to the sad nature of his philosophical doctrine, which falls in line with Michelangelo's reputation as a big baby. Also included in the painting is a self-portrait of Raphael wearing a black beret on the right corner of the fresco standing next to fellow-artist and friend Il Sodoma who was one of the artists whose work Raphael was ordered to paint over.
The fresco utilizes many techniques of the Renaissance artists, including the way it invites viewers to enter the space as if they are fully engulfed in the scene in an almost theatrical way. The perspective leads us into the throng of its occupants as if we, too, were engaged in the debate or contemplation. The light from the window in the background of the piece fills the scene, enhancing its three-dimensional solidity. The high vaulted ceiling with a view of the sky gives the feeling that we are entering into the realm of super human thought and activity and increases the sense of awe of being in the company of men so instrumental in shaping our understanding of the world. The coloring is muted to allow no one point of focus. Instead, we see the whole composition as being a world, which exists in a plane of time beyond that which we call our own demonstrating Raphael's great skill in his use of color.
The narrative aspects of the four frescos are perfectly arranged to engage in dialogue with each other and conducive to the intended use of the room as a library.
The School of Athens received both critical and popular attention immediately upon completion and was instrumental in elevating Raphael's public acclaim. This vindicated Pope Julius II's decision to award him the commission, and also laid the foundation for his trust in Raphael in conferring on him the artistic responsibilities that followed.
Fresco - Apostolic Palace, Vatican City
The painting shows the Madonna and child in the centre with St. Sixtus and St. Barbara kneeling on either side of them. St. Barbara was included in the painting as her relics were worshiped in the church. St. Sixtus intercedes on the viewer's behalf, which is indicated by the right hand pointing down to us as he gazes up towards the Madonna. The two cherubs at the bottom of the painting look up at them without the reverence of the saints, or the solemnity of the Virgin, or the innocence of the baby Jesus. On the bottom left of the painting is the papal crown of Pope Sixtus.
Pope Julius II commissioned this work as an altarpiece for the Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto, Piacenza. It was in homage to his uncle Pope Sixtus IV (who was canonized and is now known as St. Sixtus) who built the Sistine Chapel, and after whom the chapel is named.
The painting continues Raphael's incorporation of Renaissance elements with his own style in this devotional work. He used a pyramidal compositional structure that was common at the time. The curtains, which appear to be drawn back to reveal the heavenly scene, help create a harmony between the painting and the altar for which it was created. The illusionary space in which the heavenly figures are placed enhances the celestial significance of the invocation of the blessings, meant to arouse awe when viewed by a congregation below. Raphael's masterly use of color enhances the endearing warmth in the expression of benevolence of the virgin and piety of the saints, and the swirling drapery of St. Sixtus allows the viewer's eye to move around the ethereal stillness of the figures placed on the cushion of clouds. The only earthly contact alluded to in the picture comes from the inclusion of the Pope's crown and the balcony on which the cherubs are resting.
The piece is important for myriad reasons. It was the last of the Madonnas painted by Raphael but also carries an interesting lineage and influence in Germany. After its acquisition by Augustus III, King of Poland, for 110,000 francs, the then highest ever price paid for a painting, it was brought to Dresden. Art historians Hans Belting and Helen Atkins have called this painting "supreme among the world's paintings," with the ability to arouse a state of religious ecstasy so seminal that upon the opening of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden in 1855, it was accorded a room of its own. After the war, the painting was taken to the Soviet Union, and remained there until 1955 when, following the death of Stalin, it was returned to Dresden.
Its influence continues to this day. The Belarussian artists Mikhail Savitsky and Mai Dansig based their iconic works The Partisan Madonna of Minsk (1978), and And the Saved World Remembers (1985) on this painting. The cherubs, too, have garnered a special place in contemporary visual imagery. The musicologist and author Gustav Kobbé said of them, "no cherub or group of cherubs are so famous," and they have gone on to appear on clothing, bed linen, handbags, stamps, Christmas cards, and jewelery to name but a few impressions they have made on the public imagination.
It is fitting to close with Giorgio Vasari who said of the Sistine Madonna, it is "a truly rare and extraordinary work."
Oil on Canvas - Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden
Triumph of Galatea
This fresco depicts the story of Galatea, daughter of the sea god Nereus, who had fallen in love with Acis, a shepherd. The story goes that Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon, loved Galatea, and when he caught her and her beloved Acis in embrace, he killed him in a jealous rage. In the center, we see Galatea riding the seas on a conch-shell chariot drawn by two dolphins, trying to flee. Mythical sea creatures, nymps, and flying putti surround the heroine in this dramatic escape.
The Triumph of Galatea was painted to decorate the Villa Farnesina for Raphael's banker and friend Agostino Chigi. It is the only painting from Greek mythology ever painted by the artist. It was inspired by the poem "Stanza per la Giostra," by Angelo Poliziano, which is also thought to have been the inspiration for Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (1483-1485). The verse describes how, despite the love song sung by Polyphemus, Galatea spurns his love, sailing away with her company of sea nymphs. Although neither his poetic series nor the intended frescos to decorate the villa were completed, we are lucky to have within this work a marvelous example of Raphael's technical artistic ability as well as imaginative interpretation.
The piece breathes with an emotional intensity that is testament to Raphael's ability to conjure ideals of grandeur so majestically. The figures in the composition all interact with each other to form a cohesive whole. Each gesture is met with a reciprocal gesture, guiding our gaze to the central beauty of Galatea's face, which the artist professed came directly from his imagination rather than a model. A frenzied fluidity of movement is achieved through Galatea's billowing robe, the plunging dolphins, and the supreme musculature of the other figures, illustrating perfect machinations of the body.
It's easy to see Michelangelo's influence in the muscular forms or Leonardo's harking back to Roman classical frescos with the bright coloring. Yet, there is no doubt that this painting is a supreme example that embodies all Raphael had learned resulting in a magnificent elegy to the dreamlike nature of beauty.
Fresco - Villa Farnesina, Rome
Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata)
Perhaps no other work by Raphael can be said to epitomize his passion for presenting beauty in all its idealism as this one, a portrait of his beloved Margherita Luti. Of note is the pearl in her hair, a reference to her name, which means pearl. The painting was borne of the artist's adoration rather than a work that was commissioned. In it, Margherita's facial features are reminiscent of the face in many of his Madonnas and present a quality of loveliness bestowed by the male gaze. The clear smoothness of her skin, the alluring almond shape of her eyes, and the perfectly modeled face in a pose of the divine, otherwise considered unattainable, make this piece an unforgettable testament to love. In fact, the art historian Oskar Fischel called it "a love-prompted improvisation."
The piece lays evidence of Raphael's consummate understanding of Leonardo da Vinci's sfumato technique of creating a smoky blurred fusion of colors. He also adopted Leonardo's innovation of painting half-length portraits, which allowed Raphael to focus on his skill at painting the lustrously shimmering fabric of his subject's dress. The art critic Julia Addison saw an amorphic sexuality in the looseness with which it is depicted the way others refer to the voluptuous sexuality of Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings.
The painting remains important to Raphael's overall oeuvre. Although a portrait of extraordinary beauty, La Donna Velata is unique in that it is of a real person, not merely a represented objectification of beauty. By painting a portrait imbued with such personal history, Raphael not only gives us a consummate homage to beauty and his legendary love of women, but also a reflection of his adoration of the sitter which makes him so personable.
Oil on Canvas - Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Raphael's portrait of his close friend Baldassare Castiglione is rife with intimacy and emotionality in its depiction of a cultured man. His gaze is powerful yet humble, in homage to the kind of power gained without affectation or arrogance. He appears to be a man confident in his intellect, and thus a man devoted to the highest ideals of humanism, which was the most influential philosophy of the time. The brown background adds to the solemnity of the painting as it mutes the colors of the doublet trimmed with fur and black ribbon. In the quiet space of his presence, lurks the human vulnerability of the sitter.
The painting was made in celebration of Baldassare's appointment as Ambassador to Pope Leo X by Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Castiglione was a diplomat and author of The Book of the Courtier, a text which discussed manners and court etiquette, and which became an important cultural influence in the 16th century. It was also regarded as the antithesis to the cynical pragmatism of power expressed by Niccolò Machiavelli in his book The Prince, published in 1513, which considered dishonesty and immorality necessary evils in politics. The Book of the Courtier, on the other hand, considered the responsibility of power guided by humanistic virtue. With its excellent vulnerability, Raphael's portrait epitomized the restrained elegance of the courtier, which Baldassare proposed as necessary in his book. Baldassare was so impressed by the painting he referred to it in a poem he wrote to his wife in which he praised the uncanny likeness and the human presence it emits.
The composition showing the sitter in three-quarter profile gazing out at the viewer, contained within the pyramidal design much favored in the Renaissance was reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, which Raphael is said to have seen before Leonardo da Vinci left for France.
The painting is one of the most famous portraits of the High Renaissance and has enjoyed extensive popularity over the years. Its influence can be seen in the work of other prominent artists, including Titian with his Portrait of a Man (1520), the self-portraits of Rembrandt, and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' Portrait of Monsieur Bertin (1832). Rubens and Matisse also copied the painting and Paul Cézanne exclaimed about it, "How well balanced the patches in the unity of the whole."
Oil on Canvas - Louvre, Paris
One of the most well-known of Raphael's paintings which was not commissioned, La Fornarina is a sister portrait to La Donna Velata and depicts Margherita Luti, the artist's great love. The painting shows a seated half-length nude looking out at the viewer in an undone dress, concealing the lower part of her body. While her left-hand rests on her lap, her right hand touches her breast. A veil, while a symbol of modesty, fails to conceal her sensuously presented upper torso. The dark landscape in the background enhances the tonal modeling quality of the painting, and richness of the turban she wears. With her flawless skin and radiant face she looks straight past us, smiling to someone on our right, and, knowing her relationship with Raphael, we have no hesitation in imagining her looking at her lover as he painted her.
Raphael signed this painting on the band on her arm, perhaps alluding to his possession of her. After a recent restoration it appears the girl was originally wearing a wedding ring. Because the wedding ring was painted out, speculation rose that Raphael had secretly married Margherita. But due to their different social classes, and the fact that he was already engaged to Maria Bibbiena, the pair had to enjoy their union in private.
The work shows Leonardo's influence on Raphael, seen in the way gesture is used to convey meaning. It is also representative of the artist's mission to depict only the highest ideals of beauty. As Gustave Flaubert noted in his Dictionary of Received Ideas, "Fornarina: She was a beautiful woman," of which there is little doubt.
Many artists have been inspired by the love story including Giuseppe Sogni Henri-Joseph Martlet, Nicaise de Keyser, Francesco Gandolfi, and Fancesco Valaperta, all of whom titled their paintings Raphael and La Fornarina. The most famous artist who drew upon this work was Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres with his La Fornarina (1814). In it, Margherita is resting on Raphael's knee, with Raphael looking adoringly at his own painting of La Fornarina. Picasso, too, was entranced by Raphael's secret passion and in 1968 created his famous 357 series of 25 erotic etchings. More recently, Cindy Sherman modeled herself as La Fornarina in her work Untitled Number 205 (1989).
Oil on Wood - Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome
This painting combines two biblical narratives. The title refers to the story of Christ referred to in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in which he took three of his disciples up a mountain to show his true form, an act validated by the voice of God. The second tale is that of the Miracle of the Possessed Boy, which relates an encounter after the Transfiguration when Jesus and his disciples descended the mountain only to encounter a man who begged Christ to heal his devil-possessed son. The presentation of these two stories is visually accomplished by the contrast between above and below.
Christ is shown in the upper half with the prophets Moses on the right and Elijah on the left, both illuminated by the emanating divine light. Peter, James, and John cower below them on the mountaintop, overwhelmed as they shield their eyes from the radiance. On the left of the top half of the painting are said to be two saints, Felicissimus and Agapitus, who were martyred with Pope Sixtus II in 258, on the feast day commemorating the Transfiguration.
In the lower half of the painting we see earthly turmoil as the crowd awaits the miracle Christ is about to perform to rid the boy of demons, which has also been interpreted as an epileptic fit. The boy's father leads him toward the apostles on the left, who are unable to help him. One points to Christ, another at the child, while the one on the bottom right holds out his hand as if asking the viewer to be privy to the scene.
This was the last painting Raphael worked on. It was one of two paintings commissioned by Cardinal Guilio de' Medici, who later became Pope Clement VII, for Narbonne Cathedral in France. Raphael's was for an altarpiece. The other The Raising of Lazarus (1519), was based on a drawing by Michelangelo that would eventually be completed by his friend Sebastiano del Piombo. The commission rekindled the competition between the two artists. Raphael had still not completed his work by the time of his death although the main part of the work is by his own hand. His pupil Giulio Romano and his assistant Gianfrancesco Penni would later complete it.
It reflects the culmination of Rachael's artistic achievement in his short life and began to receive public and critical acclaim following Raphael's death. The painting was hung in Raphael's studio while he was lying in state and was carried at the head of his funeral procession followed by a large crowd of mourners who accompanied the procession.
Instead of finding home with the Cathedral at Narbonne, it was placed above Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon, where it remained for three years before being donated to the Church of San Pietro Montorio. It was then confiscated by Napoleon in 1798 and went on public display in the Louvre, becoming the centerpiece in the Grand Galerie, which hosted 20 other paintings by Raphael. The importance of the painting while in France is demonstrated by the fact that it was included in a drawing by the artist Benjamin Zix who recorded the wedding procession of Napoleon and Marie Louise in 1810. While in the Louvre, many painters visited it for inspiration including the English Joseph Farington, John Hoppner, and JMW Turner, the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli, and the American artist Benjamin West for whom it was one of the greatest paintings in the world. Following Napoleon's defeat in 1815, it was returned to Rome.
Described by Giorgio Vasari as Raphael's "most beautiful and divine work," this painting has been a source of constant education and inspiration to artists. Turner used it as reference in a lecture on composition, and Caravaggio for its use of chiaroscuro (the effect of contrasted light and shadow), a technique Caravaggio went on to master.
Often alluded to as an important example of Mannerism, a style of European art that emerged at the time of Raphael's death and lasted until the end of the 16th century, the dramatic artistic tension in the lower half of the painting also echoes the Baroque style that replaced Mannerism.
Tempera on Wood - Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City, Rome