Following the architect Bramante’s death in 1514, Raphael was appointed his successor. Although relatively little of the constructional work which he undertook for Pope Leo X survives, one of the gems is the open loggia which he had built on the second floor of the Damasus Courtyard west wing of the Palazzo Apostolico in the Vatican. This has thirteen bays in which Raphael’s workshop painted frescoes of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, between 1518-19. As it turned out, together with the frescoes in the adjoining Loggetta, these were his last substantial frescoes.
Until 1813, the arcades of the loggia were open to the elements; they were only then protected by glass. As a result, the paintings haven’t aged as well as those fully indoors. I have therefore selected half a dozen which are in rather better condition and can still give an account of how wonderful Raphael’s Loggia must have been.
The sequence of paintings starts with the Creation, told in four scenes in the first bay, ending with The Creation of the Animals. God the Creator walks among a marvellous collection of animals and birds. Notable among these are a unicorn, below God’s left hand, and an early image of a rhinoceros at the right. Although the latter may seem novel, rhinos first appeared in European paintings before 30,000 BCE, and in 1515 Albrecht Dürer made a woodcut of one on the basis of verbal descriptions. The large dark object to the left of God’s head isn’t a Jovian eagle, but God’s cloak blowing behind him in the wind.
The second bay contains four scenes telling the Fall of Man, the third of Noah and the Flood, the fourth of Abraham, and the fifth of Isaac.
The four scenes in the six bay show key episodes from the life of Jacob, of which two remain in good condition.
Jacob’s Dream, or Jacob’s Ladder, tells the celebrated story from the book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10-19. In essence, Jacob went to sleep one night when he was travelling, and dreamed that a ladder had been set up, stretching from earth to heaven. Angels were ascending and descending the ladder. God spoke to him in the dream, telling him that the land on which Jacob was sleeping would be given by God to Jacob and his descendants. Jacob then named the place Bethel, and in the future it did become a part of the land of the Israelites.
This is a classic composition which adheres closely to the scripture, with God at the top, about to speak to Jacob, and winged angels on stone steps rather than a ladder. Clouds billow around the brilliantly lit steps, and there are tantalising remains of what must have been a quite realist landscape.
The second of the four scenes from the life of Jacob shows Jacob’s Encounter with Rachel, from the book of Genesis, chapter 29. Jacob had been sent a great distance to stay with Laban, as a place of safety from the anger of his brother Esau. Jacob happened upon hs host’s second daughter, and his own first cousin, as she came to water her father’s flock of sheep. He fell in love with Rachel, and worked seven years for Laban in return for her hand in marriage.
Thankfully, much of the wonderful detail in this painting has survived.
The seventh bay shows four scenes from the life of Joseph, and the eighth and ninth tell the story of Moses.
Moses Saved from the Water, or The Finding of Moses, opens these in showing the infant Moses discovered after he been abandoned by his mother, as told in the book of Exodus chapter 2 verses 3–10. The Pharaoh had decreed that all male children born to the Hebrews would be drowned in the river Nile, so his mother Jochebed placed him in a small ‘ark’ and concealed it among the bulrushess by the bank of the Nile. The ark and its occupant were discovered by the daughter of Pharaoh and her handmaids when the princess went to bathe in the Nile. Moses’ older sister Miriam saw this, and offered to find a nurse for the infant. Pharaoh’s daughter then adopted and raised him as an Egyptian of royal caste.
The landscape is spectacular.
The tenth bay takes the Hebrew people over the River Jordan into the Promised Land. The eleventh shows four scenes from the life of David, and moves on to the twelth bay with its account of Solomon.
The Judgment of Solomon tells this story from the First book of Kings, chapter 3.
King Solomon was known for his wisdom and sense of justice. Like many kings, he sat in judgement over disputes, assuming the role of the ultimate court of appeal. One day, two young women who lived in the same house came to him seeking his judgement. Both had recently given birth to sons, but one of the sons had died, leaving the mothers in dispute over the surviving infant. Mother A claimed that mother B had accidentally smothered B’s own baby when she was asleep, so had taken A’s baby instead. B claimed that no such thing had happened, but that A’s baby had died, and the surviving baby was her own. So both mothers claimed the one living child as their own.
After some thought, Solomon called for a sword, and declared that the only fair solution was to cut the live child in two, so that each mother could receive half of him. The true mother then implored Solomon to give the whole baby to the other mother if that would spare his life, but the liar called on Solomon to go ahead and divide the infant as he had proposed. From this Solomon deduced the identity of the true mother, and entrusted her with the infant’s care.
This composition avoids excessive symmetry by putting the courtier who is about to cut the live infant in two, that baby, and the true mother on the left, the dead baby in the middle in front of Solomon, and the false mother and a group of other courtiers at the right. The three key faces (Solomon, the two mothers) are shown in profile, which limits our ability to read their expressions. It shows the peak moment of climax, the sword held aloft and the real mother intervening to save her baby.
The Old Testament series in the first twelve bays concludes with the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. That leads on to the thirteenth and final bay, which shows four scenes from the life of Christ: the adoration of the shepherds, that of the kings, Christ’s baptism, and the Last Supper.
The Adoration of the Magi shows the three kings paying their respects to the newborn Christ, a very popular scene which expands from the basic story given in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 2. Raphael keeps the crowds well back so as to make the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus the centre of attention.
Unlike the frescoes in his first Stanza, Raphael didn’t paint any of these himself. They were team efforts from his exceptionally large workshop, which by this time included as many as fifty apprentices, craftspeople, and possibly three masters in their own right, including Perino del Vaga (1501-1547), Giulio Romano (1499-1546), and Gianfrancesco Penni (1488/96-1528).
The overall plan for the frescoes is thought to have originated with Raphael, who also contributed some of the designs, at least. Painting started in the Spring of 1518, and was completed by the early summer of the following year.