At around ten o’clock in the evening of Good Friday, 6 April 1520, the artist and architect Raphael died in the Vatican in Rome, following a short fever. He was only thirty-seven, but in the course of the previous twenty years had progressed from being a former pupil of Perugino to being one of the greatest masters of painting in the European tradition.
Over the last couple of months, I have looked at some of Raphael’s most important and wonderful paintings. This article surveys his brief but glorious career, with links to those more detailed accounts. My series starts with an overview of the state of the art as it was in 1500.
When he first started work as a master in his own right, Raphael’s style was indistinguishable from that of his teacher, Perugino. That was fairly conservative for the time, more consistent and reliable than evolutionary or revolutionary. It’s probably fair to describe Raphael’s earliest paintings, like the Solly Madonna or Madonna and Child Holding a Goldfinch from about 1501, as being from the school of Perugino. The modelling of flesh is distinctly pre-Raphaelite, and there is comparatively little attention paid to the surface textures of fabrics.
Article 2: School of Perugino.
Raphael’s style then started to diverge, as shown in his Marriage of the Virgin, commonly known by its Italian name of Il Sposalizio, from 1504. He painted this for the church of San Francesco in Città di Castello, and based it on an altarpiece by Perugino for Perugia Cathedral at about the same time. In contrast to Perugino’s version, Raphael shows his eye for the classical, with its grand architecture expertly projected in depth.
Raphael was in Florence at this time, where by happy coincidence he met and almost certainly worked with Leonardo da Vinci. This proved formative, as the young Raphael assimilated what he learned from Leonardo rather than simply copying his work.
Among a flurry of Madonnas which Raphael painted during this period in Florence is his justly famous Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John) from 1505-06. This pyramidal composition, learned from Leonardo, is used again in the slightly later Madonna del Cardellino and the Belle Jardinière. His modelling of flesh is now fully mature, and he adds finely-painted flowers and plants.
Article 3: Becoming Raphael.
Raphael’s big break occurred in 1508, when he was invited to Rome by Pope Julius II. Michelangelo was already there, and had recently started work, albeit reluctantly at first, on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Raphael’s friend the architect Donato Bramante resented Michelangelo’s presence, and persuaded the Pope to engage his young and promising friend as a second painter.
Soon after he arrived in Rome in late 1508, the Pope set Raphael to work on a series of rooms in the Vatican Palace now known after Raphael, his stanze. The first of these contains large frescoes which are among the finest of the Renaissance, in particular The School of Athens. After Raphael’s death, Michelangelo boasted that Raphael had learned everything that he knew about painting from Michelangelo’s work, but this was painted over the period of 1509-10, well before Michelangelo completed his vast task in the Sistine Chapel.
An assorted collection of Greek philosophers, together with a few extras, are chatting, teaching, and generally loafing about in an impressive building of grand classical style which is an extended fantasy based on Bramante’s contemporary architecture. Although there’s no coherent narrative to this painting, it contains numerous diverting scenes in which the viewer is challenged to recognise the participants.
Article 4: First frescoes in Rome.
With Papal support and no shortage of work for Julius, members of his court and religious organisations, Raphael grew his workshop to a size of about 50, which was unprecedented. He seems to have been popular and treated his assistants well, giving his three principals, Giulio Romano, Gianfrancesco Penni and Perino del Vaga, considerable artistic freedom and reward.
As he was completing his first stanza of frescoes, Raphael was commissioned to paint this Portrait of Pope Julius II. His careful modelling of surface textures encompasses a wide range of materials, including the polished metals of the chair. This is a remarkably familiar and informal image, with the Pope sat not on his throne dressed in pontifical robes, but on a more everyday sede camerale and in working rig, as if in an audience.
The Madonna of Foligno, from 1512, is a monumental painting commissioned by a friend of the Pope. Its pictorial style contrasts with Raphael’s more intimate tondi, but it’s a superb work in every detail, down to the distant town and the arch of vaporous cherubs.
Of all Raphael’s tondo Madonnas, it’s his Madonna della Sedia (Madonna of the Chair) from 1513-14 which is my favourite. It shows a thoroughly real and natural mother with two infants, every surface texture rendered as in life.
Article 5: Roman portraits and Madonnas.
Article 6: Stanze and Sibyls.
Some of Raphael’s paintings had influence far beyond the fortunate few who were able to see them at the time.
The Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia, probably painted between 1513-14, is not only a masterpiece in its own right, but was the first to be widely seen which showed this saint associated with music. I have argued here that it was probably this painting more than anything which secured the popularity of Saint Cecilia as the patron saint of music and musicians.
Raphael’s first pontifical patronage died with Julius II in 1513. His successor Leo X was no less enthusiastic for his work, and soon after his election commissioned Raphael to design a series of ten tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Although the original tapestries are now past their best, many of his cartoons have survived.
Finest of them is The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, which shows the calling of Saint Peter the Apostle. Peter, then known as Simon, was a fisherman who worked the Sea of Galilee with his brother Andrew and the two sons of Zebedee. Jesus called Simon and his brother to become “fishers of men”.
Article 7: The Sistine Tapestries.
As Raphael had painted his previous patron, so some time between 1517-19 he painted this Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi Rossi. The three figures are grouped closely together and in rich colour. The Pope sits not on a throne, but more informally, a magnificent illuminated book (thought to be the ‘Hamilton’ Bible from about 1350) open in front of him and a magnifying glass in his left hand. Every surface texture is lifelike, from the polished metal sphere on the back of the chair with its carefully projected reflection, to the hair and fur.
Article 8: Prophets and Popes.
Article 9: The Loggia Frescoes.
Article 10: Last easel paintings.
In the five centuries since Raphael’s death he has attracted a great following, and some who argued that the purest art was attained before him, not as a result. I examine some of the consequences of his achievements in this article, and the case of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its sequel.
Whether you love his paintings or not, Raphael is one of a small number of European masters who changed the course of painting in the West, alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.