Robin Urton: dimensional paintings on glass


Raphael Sanzio


Raphael was a painter of the Italian "High Renaissance", considered one of the greatest and most popular artists of all time. Unlike Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael was to live a very short life, dying at the youthful age of 38. He was born Raffaello Santi or Raffaello Sanzio in Urbino on April 6, 1483, and received his early training in art from his father, Giovanni Santi. In 1499 he went to Perugia, in Umbria, and became a student and assistant of the painter Perugino. Raphael imitated his master closely, and their painting styles are so similar that art historians have found it difficult to determine which were painted by Raphael, and which were by his master. This was the beginning of his career as an absorber of influences. It is said of Raphael that whatever he saw, he took possession of, always growing by what was taught to him.


St. George and the Dragon, 1505

St. George and The Dragon, 1504-6

Both of these images of St. George Fighting the Dragon were painted when the artist was in his early twenties. They echo the gentle expression of his teacher, Perugino (especially in the little praying princess). There is, however, a sense of vigor in the knight and his horse and the dragon that was beyond Perugino's skill.




Madonna d' Orleans

Madonna of the Goldfinch

Madonna in the Garden

Madonna of the Meadow

Alba Madonna

Raphael is best known for his many images of Madonnas (some of his most popular ones have been made into postage stamps, above). An interesting irony for these scenes of quiet faith is the notion, recorded by the historian Giorgio Vasari (a contemporary of Raphael's time), that Raphael was an atheist, and that he painted what would be acceptable, not what he felt to be true. He was, however, an appreciator of feminine beauty, and was noted to have been a "ladies man". It is possible that many of the images of Mary were posed by the same woman.


Cowper Madonna, 1504

Madonna of the Chair, 1518

It is believed that his Madonnas were particularly influenced by Leonardo, with whom he came under direct influence when Raphael moved to Florence. The small Cowper Madonna, with its softness of contour and perfection of balance, has been noted for its resemblance to some of Leonardo's paintings of the subject. Madonna of the Chair was created more than a decade later, but also reflects the sweetness and harmony that we have come to identify with Raphael. It is considered by many to be the most popular of all Raphael madonnas, and was probably painted for Pope Leo X, or one of the Medici. Of particular interest is the circular design. All of the interlocking arms and legs, and the directional gazes within the picture serve to emphasize the circular composition.


The School of Athens
The Vatican, Rome





In 1508 Raphael was called to Rome by Pope Julius II and commissioned to execute frescoes in four small rooms of the Vatican Palace. The walls of the first room are decorated with scenes elaborating ideas suggested by personifications of Theology, Philosophy, Poetry, and Justice, which appear on the upper walls. The most famous of these compositions is The School of Athens, which represents the concept of Philosophy. The painting displays the greatest thinkers of the Greek world, most notably Plato and Aristotle, who are at the center of the composition. As with Leonardo's Last Supper, all of the architectural lines lead back to a vanishing point right behind the main center of interest, and the arch doorway serves to emphasize their importance. Though the artist portrays famous thinkers from a thousand years before his time, he uses portraits of his contemporaries to serve the composition. In the place of Plato, for instance, it is likely that the portrait is that of Leonardo. Likewise, Michelangelo is in the foreground (depicted as Heraclitus), leaning against a block. During the time of Leonardo's painting, Michelangelo was also creating the Sistine Chapel frescos (also within the Vatican). A well-known story suggests that Raphael snuck into the Sistine Chapel, while the painting of its ceiling was in progress. Michaelangelo was added after Raphael found himself influenced by the energy and action of Michaelangelo's compositions.
Raphael portrays himself in a less significant area of the School of Athens. He peers out at the viewer from the center of a group of scholars that are crowded together at the far right edge of the composition. Probably many of the other persons within the painting are posed by contemporaries. I have noticed the similarity between one figure and a famous portait of a young man named Bindo Altoviti (below).


Portrait of Bindo Altoviti

Baldassare Castiglione

La Donna Velata

For many years, historians believed that youth at left was Raphael himself. He was said to be unusually handsome, pensive, and fair, but it is now agreed that it is Bindo Altoviti at 22 (Raphael was 33, with only five years left to live). I personally find Raphael's portraits to be some of his most compelling works. The portrait of Baldassari Castiglione is a particularly sensitive rendition of a well-known Renaissance humanist writer. La Donna Velata is possibly the same woman who is portrayed in many of his Madonna images, and is believed to have been the painter's mistress. All three portraits are exquisite examples of Renaissance temperance and style.


Last Works
(click below images for larger versions)

Raphael's final paintings are some of his most powerful religious works. The Sistine Madonna is his last image of the heavenly mother. It is much more supernatural than his previous works, as Mary treads on pillowy clouds and is surrounded by musing angels. The return of such supernatural images will influence the works of the Mannerist painters, who emulate the dramatic style of Raphael's later works.

The Transfiguration of Christ is the final work of Raphael's life, and is believed to have been unfinished (probably completed by one of his students). Raphael did not paint the standard interpretation of the story, as he combines it with the story of The Healing of the Lunatic Boy. After ascending the "mountain of revelation," Christ was transfigured before the three awestruck apostles. A dramatic white light emanated from behind Christ. Although it is written in the Gospels that the events of The Healing of the Lunatic Boy actually followed The Transfiguration, Raphael joined them at one point in time. In the Gospels the possessed boy was brought to the apostles to be freed of his demonic possession. However the twelve apostles, "small and impotent," were unable to cure the sick child until Christ arrived. The Transfigured Christ, to whom one of the apostles points, is the only help, and the unlifted arms pointing to the vision form the connecting link between the two regions. Their directioning joins the two scenes by announcing that Christ is the savior of man; only he can heal the pains of this life.

(detail of lunatic boy in Transfiguration)

Raphael's art has fallen out of favor in contemporary times because it seems almost too perfect and sweet. Many art historians believe that it lacks the dynamic power of Leonardo or Michelangelo's works. However, Raphael was a great artist, who exemplified the tastes of his time. During his lifetime, he was perhaps as famous as the great Michelangelo, and received so many commissions that he had a difficult time keeping up with them. He had a tremendous impact on artists that were to follow him, which is especially significant given his short life. At the age of 38, he contracted a fever, which was probably caused by an insect bite. He would probably have healed, but for the continued practice of medieval medicine, which prompted the doctors to bleed him with leeches, attempting to get the "bad blood" out. One can only wonder what he would have achieved if given the long life spans of Leonardo or Michelangelo. Though much younger than Michelangelo, he died 43 years before him. The death of Michelangelo will mark the end of the High Renaissance. A transitional period, called "Mannerism" will take place for the next 50 years, before the beginning of the Baroque era.

to Mannerism