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Raphael and His Main Works

Por centuries Raphael has been recognised as the supreme High Renaissance painter, more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than their older contemporary Leonardo. Though he died at 37, Raphael’s example as a paragon of classicism dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century. Raphael (Raffaello Santi) was born in Urbino where his father, Giovanni Santi, was court painter. He almost certainly began his training there and must have known works by Mantegna, Uccello, and Piero della Francesca from an early age. His earliest paintings were also greatly influenced by Perugino. From 1500 – when he became an independent master – to 1508 he worked throughout central Italy, particularly Florence, where he became a noted portraitist and painter of Madonnas. In 1508, at the age of
Raffaello Sanzio, Raphael. Self-portrait. between 1504 and 1506. It is attributed to be a self-portrait, but the lack of portraits of him, there is no certainty that it is. (Wikimedia Commons)

Por centuries Raphael has been recognised as the supreme High Renaissance painter, more versatile than Michelangelo and more prolific than their older contemporary Leonardo. Though he died at 37, Raphael’s example as a paragon of classicism dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century.

Raphael (Raffaello Santi) was born in Urbino where his father, Giovanni Santi, was court painter. He almost certainly began his training there and must have known works by Mantegna, Uccello, and Piero della Francesca from an early age. His earliest paintings were also greatly influenced by Perugino. From 1500 – when he became an independent master – to 1508 he worked throughout central Italy, particularly Florence, where he became a noted portraitist and painter of Madonnas.

In 1508, at the age of 25, he was called to the court of Pope Julius II to help with the redecoration of the papal apartments. In Rome he evolved as a portraitist, and became one of the greatest of all history painters.

He remained in Rome for the rest of his life and in 1514, on the death of Bramante, he was appointed architect in charge of St Peter’s. (Text: The National Gallery)

Featured photo, above: Disputation of Holy Sacrament: The Disputation, or simply “the Disputa,” was commissioned by Pope Julius II almost immediately after Raphael moved to Rome in 1508 as part of a huge project to paint the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura, the pope’s library quarters within the Vatican that are now referred to simply as the “Raphael Rooms.” (In fact, Michelangelo guffawed at the ostentatious youngster’s speedy appointment to the task, since the elder sculptor had to hang around the capital city shaking hands and kissing babies for months before finally landing his Sistine Chapel ceiling gig. The two did not get along.) The frescoes in the four chambers of the stanza each illustrate the best aspects of the human spirit, with the Disputation representing divine truth and depicting the relationship between heaven and earth, with the empyrean populated by Jesus and his coterie and the mortal realm thronged by figures ranging from the clergy to Dante. (Texto: ArtNet)


The School of Athens (1509-11)


The School of Athens. fresco. height: 550 cm (18 ft) Edit this at Wikidata; width: 770 cm (25.2 ft). (Photo: Wikipedia)

Regarded as Raphael’s greatest masterpiece, The School of Athens sits opposite the Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament in the Stanza della Segnatura and represents worldly truth, i.e. philosophy. It’s a virtuosic wonder of perspective and populated by an intellectual who’s-who of Western thought from Plato and Aristotle to Ptolemy and Euclid. The painting tops our list of the artist’s most brilliant works because Raphael ostensibly knew he’d created something that would change the course of painting forever—after all, to show he knew just how good he was, Raphael went ahead and included himself in the scene, too, the same moody face of his earlier self-portrait. And why shouldn’t he have? It ain’t bragging if it’s true. As Vasari said:

“Nature had ample cause, on the other hand, to make clearly resplendent in Raphael all those rare virtues of mind, accompanied by as much grace, study, beauty, modesty, and fine manners as would have sufficed to cover up any flaw, no matter how ugly, or any blemish, no matter how large. As a result, It is safe to say that those who possess as many rare gifts as were seen in Raphael from Urbino are not simple mortals but (if it is permitted to speak in this way) mortal gods, and that those who by their endeavors leave behind in this world an honored name in the annals of fame can also hope to enjoy a worthy reward in Heaven for their hard work and merit.” (Texto: ArtNet)


La Fornarina (1518-20)

La fornarina. portrait between circa 1519 and circa 1520. (Photo: Wikimedia Common)

The Ritratto di giovane donna (Portrait of a young woman), generally known as La Fornarina, is one of the most representative works of the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael Sanzio. (Text: Wikipedia)

Transfiguration (1560-20)


Transfiguration. oil on panel. from 1516 until 1520. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Certainly Raphael’s spookiest painting, the Transfiguration also remains one of Raphael’s most controversial works due in no small part to the fact that it was his last before his untimely death on April 6, 1520—his 37th birthday—from a fever purportedly induced by too much sex with his mistress. Curiously, the painting was to be accompanied by another work, The Raising of Lazarus, by Raphael’s two greatest rivals: the Venetian painter Sebastiano del Piombo and, of course, Michelangelo.

Although the transfiguration of Christ was a popular scene to depict at this time, Raphael—always intrepid and undoubtedly trying to pull one over on Michelangelo once again—decided to combine two biblical scenes in his version. The bottom half shows a boy being exorcised of his demons; the top half portrays Jesus ecstatically reveling in his body’s divine glory (and overawing his onlookers) before he ascends into heaven. The painting ranks in the top three of this list because of its sheer uniqueness: There is no pictorial tradition for this conflation, and none of the interpretations—political, liturgical, theological, or otherwise—offer much insight. It is as idiosyncratic as it is enigmatic. As Christian K. Kleinbub says:

“Being the culmination of Raphael’s lifework, the very summa of visuality in Italian Renaissance painting, Raphael’s Transfiguration remains an incomparable document of its moment and the sophisticated thinking of its maker.” (Texto: ArtNet)

The Sistine Madonna  (1512)

Sistine Madonna. between circa 1512 and circa 1513. oil on canvas. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

An altarpiece commissioned for the church of San Sisto in Piacenza, this work depicts a cloud-borne Mary and Christ child, both appearing rather concerned, flanked by two saints and seeming to hover against a backdrop of ghostly putti faces. But it’s the two cherubs at the bottom of the canvas that have made the painting famous. One looks above with his chin in his hand, the other looks off to the side with his head resting on crossed forearms; both look bored out of their minds. Their general sulkiness makes them stand out from the typical rosy-cheeked ebullience of most other cherubim throughout art history. Indeed, their distinctive look may have been Raphael’s way of jabbing his good ol’ frenemy Michelangelo. Art Historian Patricia Emison notes:

“The degree of distinction between the two is all the more notable given the necessarily uniform height of Michelangelo’s putti caryatids on the Sistine Ceiling, recently completed, the squirming yet inexpressive pairs of which in some cases can be seen to include both a boy and a girl…. If Raphael at this time, c. 1513, may be taken generally to be in a highly competitive relationship with Michelangelo, it should not surprise us that his cherubs are not only more expressive than the closest figures in Michelangelo’s work, but innovatively and intriguingly so.” (Texto: ArtNet)

Marriage of the Virgin (1504)

The Marriage of the Virgin. wooden panel. 1504. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Raphael worked on this painting, also known as Lo Sposalizio, while he was still an apprentice to Perugino. Historians believe he was merely completing a job for a client while his master was out of town, and it’s nearly identical to another painting of the same name Perugino had done shortly beforehand—although many a historian has mooned over Raphael’s superior architectural renderings and more realistic foreground figures. But it’s the young artist’s cheeky signature—inscribed into the cornice of the temple, etched on either side of the painting’s central axis—that lands this early work squarely in the middle of our list. In her essay devoted entirely to the evolution of Raphael’s signature, Rona Goffen notes:

“One of Raphael’s most ostentatious signatures, the Sposalizio inscription is also one of the most audacious in Italian art…. Raphael’s conspicuous assertion of authorial pride signals professional self-awareness and the realization that the altarpiece was a liminal work, a watershed in his career.” (Texto: ArtNet)


Texts: The National Gallery, ArtNet, Wikipedia

The ArtNet texts: Margaret Carrigan


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