Raphael was, as Kenneth Clark put it, “one of the civilising forces of the western imagination”. For many of us, he is best known as the painter of exquisite Madonnas, which feature on artistic Christmas cards, their very familiarity preventing us from seeing them properly. Indeed, the two bored cherubs at the base of the Sistine Madonna are perhaps the most quoted figures in art, taken well and truly out of context.
The exhibition on Raphael at the National Gallery has an extraordinary room of Madonnas, some including the infant John the Baptist (patron of Florence) as well as the Christ Child. All seem serenely beautiful, until you see in the Alba Madonna that both children, and the Virgin, are looking at the little Baptist’s cross, presaging Christ’s fate. Many critics observe that Raphael’s Madonnas reflect the loss of his own mother as a child; maybe, but what’s striking is the fusion of divinity and humanity in those works.
Raphael was nearly a cardinal –there was talk that his patron, Julius II, was considering giving him a red hat (in those days you didn’t have to be ordained for the honour) – and almost a saint. When he died (after his doctors bled him following sexual excess), after he had sent his mistress away in a Christian fashion, and after undergoing the last rites, his coffin was placed beneath his last painting, the Transfiguration of Christ, which seemed to presage his own destination.
He died, contemporaries observed, as he was born, on Good Friday. It was not, in his time, impossible for a man to be simultaneously addicted to sex, and saintly. The sanctity was not just evident in his sacred subjects but in his life; his biographer Giorgio Vasari observed that he could keep teams of artists working together without acrimony, a rare feat. Vasari was in no doubt about Raphael’s standing: “When this noble craftsman died, the art of painting might well have died also, seeing that when he closed his eyes, she was left as it were blind… For in truth we have from him art, colouring and invention harmonised and brought to such a pitch of perfection as could scarcely be hoped for; nor may any intellect ever think to surpass him.”
All the things that Vasari praised are evident in the National Gallery show. The selection of paintings would alone make it unmissable – the portrait of Pope Julius II, despondent in defeat, especially – but here too are his works for print (he learned much from Albrecht Dürer), for tapestry, for bronze, his architectural drawings, his letters to the pope in his capacity of surveyor of ancient Roman remains. For Raphael was more than a painter: he was that admirable thing, a Renaissance man. We can see only fragments of his output, but they are enough to suggest his whole genius. So, to represent his most magnificent work, the School of Athens in the library of Julius II in the Vatican – part of a decorative scheme in which, Vasari insists, all the elements come under the aegis of Theology – we find a sketch of Diogenes, the dyspeptic philosopher, lying on the steps. For his work in metal there are two bronze circular reliefs representing Christ’s appearance to Thomas after the Resurrection and the Descent into Limbo, intended for the chapel of his chief secular patron, Agostino Chigi.
The magnificent sequence of tapestries made for the Sistine chapel are represented by one of them, extraordinary in size and execution, even though it’s faded. (The cartoons on which they are based are in the V&A.)
Raphael died young, at 37, with 20 years of artistic work behind him. Some of the loveliest pieces in the exhibition are from his early career: two beautiful self-portrait drawings aged perhaps 15 or 16 and 17, marvels of delicate line.
Among his early paintings are a pair of knights , one heavenly, one mortal – St Michael and St George, raising their swords to deliver the mortal blow to their respective dragons – showing that righteous violence can indeed be graceful. To the back of St Michael, we see freakish, diabolic monsters, oddly like those of Hieronymus Bosch.
Nearby another knight – like the saints, a little picture – sleeps while at either side, Virtue and Pleasure try to win him over, each lovely in her own way. Behind him, tiny mounted figures in hats forever make for a hamlet or perhaps the beautiful castle on the hill. One of the delights of this exhibition is the chance to see these things up close.
For those who, like John Ruskin, find the sheer perfection of Raphael’s paintings intimidating, the answer, here is in his drawings – mobile and dynamic. The pen-and-ink drawings of his Annunciation, with a supplicant angel, or his Christ in Limbo, are miracles in themselves.
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