Raphael and Painting: 10 Last easel paintings

Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, Transfiguration (1518-20), oil on wood, 405 x 278 cm, Pinacoteca Vaticana, The Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

While Raphael oversaw the painting of frescoes in the loggia of the Palazzo Apostolico in the Vatican, he and his workshop continued work on many easel paintings.

Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, The Madonna of Francis I (1518), oil on canvas, 207 x 140 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Among several commissions for King Francis I of France was this Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth, the young John the Baptist, and angels, known as The Madonna of Francis I (1518). This painting was apparently intended for the Queen, his second cousin Claude, whom he had married in 1514, and who died in 1524. Its commission was indirect, and arranged by Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Duke of Urbino, who was an ambassador to the French court at the time. It was started in early March 1518 and completed by the end of that May.

Raphael is thought to have made the designs, most of the figures were painted by Giulio Romano, with the possibility that the master himself made the figure of Joseph. Sadly, this painting seems to have suffered significant early damage, and was already being restored by Primaticcio in 1537.

Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, Madonna of the Rose (c 1518), oil on canvas, 103 x 84 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Madonna of the Rose is another Holy Family which probably dates from the same year, with designs by Raphael which were then executed by his workshop. Several copies of this are also known.

A 2787
Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, Holy Family under the Oak (1518), oil on panel, 144 x 110 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Family under the Oak bears strong resemblance to figures and passages in the previous paintings, and is thought to have been designed by Raphael and painted by Giulio Romano in 1518. The notable developments here are in the architectural and landscape features. The large carved stone on which Joseph is leaning is thought to have been based on an item in Cardinal Grimani’s collection in Tivoli. The ruins in the upper left corner have been identified as the Temple of Minerva Medica, in the remains of the classical city of Rome.

Behind Joseph the landscape opens out, and reveals a coast on which there are heavy showers, lit by the sun setting behind the temple ruins.

Raphael (1483–1520) and workshop, Transfiguration (1518-20), oil on wood, 405 x 278 cm, Pinacoteca Vaticana, The Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

This Transfiguration is probably the last substantial painting made by Raphael, and at the time of his death was largely complete. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici for his cathedral in the French town of Narbonne. Work on the painting hadn’t started in January 1517, but Raphael promised its imminent completion in early 1520. Following the master’s death it appears to have been completed, then in 1523 was placed on the high altar of the church of San Pietro in Montorio Romano, just outside the city of Rome.

Unusually, it shows a composite of two scenes, the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, as detailed in the Gospel of Matthew Chapter 17, verses 2-13, and the subsequent healing of a boy possessed by the devil. Although the bringing together of these two scenes follows their literary basis, and has theological support in terms of the painting’s ‘message’, it’s sufficiently unusual as to make it most probable that this was a requirement of the commission.

The original concept for this painting, made by Raphael himself, contained the upper scene of the Transfiguration alone, and seems to have progressed to a studio design. That was abandoned in favour of a two-scene composition, which then evolved into the final composition seen here. This is thought to contain several references to the delivery of the city of Narbonne from attacks by Saracens in 1456.

Inevitably, the painting was shared between Raphael and his assistants Giulio Romano and Penni. Much of the Transfiguration itself appears to have been the work of the master himself, although the group of figures around the possessed boy in the lower story is probably by one or both of his assistants.

As this painting was nearing completion, in late March 1520, Raphael suffered a febrile illness of just over a week. Pope Leo X visited him several times before the master died on Good Friday, 6 April, at around 2200. According to Vasari’s biography of Raphael, the Pope wept bitterly at the news of the young man’s death: he was only thirty-seven. The literati of the day were quick to write epigrams in tribute. Among them were Ariosto, author of Orlando Furioso, Castiglione, Pietro Bembo and Tebaldeo, the cream of the cream.

Raphael was honoured by burial in the Pantheon itself, in an altar with a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Lorenzetto. Its inscription referred to Raphael’s ‘almost breathing images’. He had changed painting.