By 1511, Raphael was completing his first room, or stanza, for Pope Julius II, and was commissioned to paint the second, known now as the Stanza d’Eliodoro, ‘the room of Heliodorus’. In addition to its ceiling pictures and copious decorations, this features four large wall paintings, which I will step through in approximate order of completion.
Significantly, Michelangelo’s paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel were unveiled late in 1512, and their influence was assimilated into Raphael’s work here. Another important factor is that by this time, Raphael had assembled a large, talented and productive workshop. Opinions about how much of each of these frescoes was actually painted by Raphael’s hand, and how much members of his workshop contributed, are often deeply divided. However, claims that passages or whole walls were delegated to other masters appear unlikely.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple (1512) is based on an obscure event told in the Second Book of Maccabees, chapter 3, verse 15 onwards, a subject apparently chosen by the Pope. A Syrian named Heliodorus attempted to plunder the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem, and as shown here he was driven out for his sins. The villain of the piece is at the right, cast to the ground and being trampled by a horse. In the centre, in the far distance, the High Priest prays for divine aid, and a group of women at the left are spectating. Behind them is the imposing figure of Pope Julius II. Its theme may thus refer to crises in the contemporary Catholic church.
The Mass of Bolsena (1512) is based on a miracle which occurred in the town of Bolsena, near Lazio in central Italy, around 1263. A German priest there doubted the Transsubstantiation, as a result of which there was an appearance of blood, which soaked the cloth on which a chalice was standing. This blood-soaked cloth became a relic in Orvieto, and in 1506 Pope Julius II venerated it during his march against Bologna.
Raphael’s painting shows the German priest to the left of the central altar, and the bearded figure of Pope Julius II to the right. Figures in the congregation are pointing in amazement at the miracle.
When he was a cardinal, Pope Julius II had been in charge of the early Christian church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome, which was dedicated to the legend of The Liberation of Saint Peter (1514). According to the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 12, verse 6ff, the Apostle Peter was liberated from prison by a miracle, as shown here using multiplex narrative. In the centre, an angel arrives to save the apostle from his sleeping guards. Both the angel and apostle are shown a second time at the right, outside the cell.
The final large wall painting in this second stanza shows The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila (1514). This subject too appears to have been chosen by Pope Julius II, although this work was completed shortly after his death. It shows a decisive event during the invasion of Western Europe by Attila (‘the Hun’) in 452. It is supposed to have taken place near Mantua, although here has been moved to Rome. Attila was intending to drive his invasion south into central Italy and capture Rome, but was met by Pope Leo I, accompanied by apparitions of Saints Peter and Paul. The Pope’s intervention, with the aid of sword-bearing envoys from Heaven, was sufficient to dissuade Attila from proceeding any further.
Attila is on horseback in the centre foreground, where horses and their riders are reacting in fright to the vision. The Pope is at the left: originally his figure was modelled on that of Julius II, but Raphael changed this and used his successor Leo X, which confirms the date this was completed.
Raphael’s third stanza has been named after one of its paintings Stanza dell’Incendio, ‘the room of the Fire’. Painting here seems to have started while Raphael was still working on the first stanza, but at that stage consisted of ceiling paintings in an older style by Raphael’s former teacher Perugino. Raphael didn’t start work here until the middle of 1514, and each of the four large wall paintings are thought to have been designed by the master with substantial contributions by his studio. These were completed by the Spring of 1517.
Fire in the Borgo (1514) tells the simple but dramatic miracle of a fire which broke out in the Borgo of Saint Peter’s Basilica in 847, which was extinguished by Pope Leo IV when he made the sign of the Cross. The foreground is busy with casualties being brought out from the flames on the left, and vessels being filled with water at the right. Unconventionally, in a compositional device used for example in Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, the crux of the story rests in the distant figure of the Pope making the sign of the Cross from a balcony.
The Battle of Ostia (1514-15) shows a naval victory accomplished by a Pope, in this case Leo IV, who defeated a Saracen fleet in front of the city of Ostia in 849. The newly installed Pope Leo X is shown on his throne at the left, praying for victory. The cardinals with him, wearing red hats, have been identified as Bibbiena and Giulio de’ Medici. On the right a Saracen prisoner is being brought ashore to join the others before the Pope.
The theme here has not only been chosen by the new Pope, but reflected his aspiration for a crusade against non-Christian raiders who had been threatening the coast of the Papal State at the time.
The Coronation of Charlemagne (1516-17) uses another theme chosen by Pope Leo X, and shows the sudden and controversial coronation of Emperor Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in 800, performed in Saint Peter’s Basilica. This appears to have interesting connections with contemporary events and figures. The Pope shown enthroned is modelled from Leo X, and the figure of Charlemagne kneeling before him is after the French King Francis I. In 1515, Leo X and Francis I made a treaty in which the latter pledged to defend the Catholic church, just as Charlemagne had for Leo III.
The final large wall painting in the third stanza shows The Oath of Leo III (1516-17), a complementary act undertaken by that Pope before Charlemagne, in which the Pope swore on the Bible to counter a slander against him. Its contemporary reference is thought to have been a reiteration at the end of 1516 of an important rule of Canon Law of the Catholic church: Dei non hominum est episcopos iudicare or ‘it is up to God, not men, to judge bishops’, which is inscribed on the scroll being held at the lower right.
Raphael was busy elsewhere over the same period. At some time between 1511-14, he was commissioned to paint an arch of sibyls, together with four prophets on either side of the window above, in the Capella Chigi of the church of Santa Maria della Pace in Rome.
The left side is shown above, and right side below. Raphael’s fresco shows four sibyls in their uniform headdress and robes, aided by winged angels, reading from and writing to tablets, a scroll and a book.
By the time that Raphael and his workshop had completed these frescoes, the Pope’s architect Donato Bramante had died (in 1514). The new Pope Leo X, from the de’ Medici family, had begun his papacy in March 1513, and appointed Raphael as successor architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In less than six years, Raphael had progressed from painting on the Pope’s walls to designing his cathedral.