Tag Archives: Raphael

Lessons from a Stinky St. John the Baptist

It was interesting to read this morning that the exhibition in Milan of a very large, important painting by the High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) known as the “Madonna of Foligno”, has attracted almost a quarter of a million viewers in the roughly six weeks it has been on loan.  I have always thought of this altarpiece as being a rather swarthy picture, particularly in its imagining of the figure of St. John the Baptist.  Yet thinking about this painting gives us a good opportunity to see how and why an artist’s work can dramatically change as they mature, and also gives us non-artists the opportunity to reflect on how we ought to be doing the same in our own lives.

Ansidei Madonna by Raphael (c. 1505-1507) National Gallery, London

“Ansidei Madonna” by Raphael (c. 1505-1507)
National Gallery, London

Raphael’s peaceful, meditative “Ansidei Madonna” of c. 1505-1507 for example, is quite different in feeling from the “Madonna of Foligno”, even though St. John the Baptist appears in both. The “Ansidei Madonna” is a colorful and genteel picture which, like many of the images from Raphael’s time in Florence, had a tremendous impact on mass-produced Catholic devotional images in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can look at this picture and admire its architectural perfection, the loveliness of the figures, and the stillness of the composition.  However, while Raphael’s work in Florence at this period has a sense of hushed meditation about it, this style was not to last.

Raphael moved to Rome about a year after finishing the “Ansidei Madonna”, and when he arrived he was quickly inundated with more artistic commissions than he could handle.  From executing famous frescoes like “The School of Athens” in what was then the Papal Library, to designing the magnificent tapestries with scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul for the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was an extremely busy man.  Yet despite the overwhelming amount of work he took on, he did not stay stagnant as an artist.  Rather, he found the time to study, to think, and to grow artistically and intellectually, so that as he grew older, his style lost that porcelain, idealized quality he started out with, to become something still beautiful, but far more realistic.

The figures in the “Madonna of Foligno” bear some relation to those of the “Ansidei Madonna”, in that we can see they came from the same artistic mind, but the differences are very striking.  In the scant few years since Raphael left Florence, he has been exposed to the work of more diverse artists, and is living in an ancient, rough-and-tumble, sprawling city, the center of the Christian world in the West.  Raphael begins to see that there is another side to life, just as worthy of representation as the courtly images he was famous for.  As he grows, Raphael begins to become interested in “real people”, i.e. the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, the not-so-pretty.

Compare the figures of St. John the Baptist in the “Ansidei Madonna” and the “Madonna of Foligno”, for example, and you can see how Raphael’s world expanded when he moved to Rome.  In the earlier painting, although he is dressed in camel skin and has facial hair, St. John does not appear to have just come in from the Jordan River, having munched on some bugs covered in honey for breakfast, but rather from having taken a nice, hot bath and enjoyed a good lunch. He is built like an idealized athlete from ancient Greece, and could just as easily be the figure of Apollo but for the setting and his accouterments.  The saint is draped in a glorious, expensive red satin cloak, symbolizing his martyrdom, and holds a delicate gold and silver staff in the form of a cross.

"Madonna of Foligno" by Raphael (1511) The Vatican Museums

“Madonna of Foligno” by Raphael (1511)
The Vatican Museums

Now, compare this image to the figure of St. John the Baptist in the later painting.  Here St. John looks like he positively stinks from not having had a bath in quite awhile: his skin is dirty, tanned, and leathery.  His hair and beard are matted and unkempt; he is muscular, but not in a male model sort of way.  Rather, he has the sinewy arm of someone who is used to doing rough work with his hands.  He looks drawn, tired, and pinched – in short, a believable ascetic, who suffers for his faith.

Like in the earlier painting, St. John is depicted wearing his iconic camel hair and having the red robe of the martyr.  Yet whereas in the Florentine image the red drapery is luxurious and more important, here the rough and dirty animal skin is the more prominent article of clothing, with a rugged red martyr’s robe only suggested by a bit of fabric appearing over St. John’s left shoulder and jutting out behind him.  And unlike the jewel-like cross in the earlier picture, in this altarpiece St. John’s staff is a very rough, wooden pole, with a crossbeam affixed toward the top by some rope wrapped around it.

Truly, it is hard to believe that these two figures representing the same historical person could come from the same imagination, painted only four to five years apart.

Keep in mind, of course, Raphael is not trying to represent actual scenes from the Life of Christ in these pictures, but rather the concept of “sacra conversazione”, which you can learn more about here.  Because of that fact, there is always going to be idealization in such compositions.  Yet notice how remarkably less idealized, how much more believable, is the St. John the Baptist in the later picture.  The earlier picture is arguably the more beautiful of the two, but the later picture brings us into this “sacred conversation” in a very different way.  For in it, with all its swarthiness and grime, we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, in all of our human imperfections.

Thus I think the lesson here in comparing these two works is not simply an artistic or academic one.  Raphael’s art evolved the more he saw and experienced, even while remaining tied in to where he had come from as an artist.  So too, we should be open to change as we go along through this life: not losing sight of who and what we are, but at the same time gaining greater nuance and insight into our relationships with God and with our neighbor as we mature.

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Art, Transfigured

Today the Church marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that moment recounted in the Gospels when Christ briefly revealed His true nature to His three closest disciples, Sts. Peters, James, and John.  Without question the single most iconic image of this event in the history of art is Raphael’s eponymous altarpiece, which he was working on when he died, now in the Vatican.  Chances are you will recognize the image of Jesus which appears in the painting, even if you have never seen the entire work at full length, for it has proven to be one of the most enduring images of Christ in the world.  And this last masterpiece by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance gives us the opportunity to consider what secular art historians so often fail to consider when examining Western art, which is the influence of spiritual writing on popular piety.

The painting itself is unusual at first glance because it combines two different stories from the Bible: that of the Transfiguration, which dominates the upper half of the piece, and the attempt by the other Apostles not present at the Transfiguration to cure a boy possessed by demons, which takes up the lower half.  Because these two events occurred sequentially, rather than simultaneously, in the Gospels, one way to “read” the painting would be somewhat like how we read a comic strip.  However nothing in religious art, back when people actually thought about things like iconography and spirituality, happens by chance.  This is what makes the study of art history not only fascinating, but something of a multi-disciplinary subject.

A current theory for the juxtaposition of events shown in this altarpiece would not be apparent unless one was also familiar with the writing of the Franciscan mystic, Blessed Amadeo of Portugal (1420-1482), who suggested that the Transfiguration was a Biblical preview of Christ’s return in glory at the Last Judgment.  The Apostles down at the bottom of Mount Tabor are unable to cast the demon from the boy on their own, and they have to wait until Jesus comes back to them for the healing to happen.  Thus, symbolically, evil cannot be finally cast out from the world until Christ returns.

In the early 16th century, a collection of Blessed Amadeo’s sermons and writings attributed to him were combined into a work entitled the “Apocalipsis Nova”, or “The New Apocalypse”.  It was published after his death, and loosely formed a commentary on the Book of Revelation based on Blessed Amadeo’s own thoughts and experiences, in part examining the symbolism of that book of the Bible.  This work was widely circulated among the well-read and well-to-do in Rome and elsewhere, as they reflected on the signs of the times, and the role they themselves were playing in them.

We often forget that until the so-called Enlightenment, most people were deeply concerned about the impending coming of Christ again in time, in order to render the Last Judgment.  This ongoing concern is reflected through a long period of Western art, including sculptures depicting the Last Judgment which usually dominated the Western facade of the great cathedrals, all the way to Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel.  It is perhaps all too telling that today, one rarely sees this subject treated in art, or if it is, it is treated somewhat mockingly.

What is interesting about Blessed Amadeo is that after his death some of his work and the work attributed to him was condemned as heretical by theologians, and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.  As it turned out, with greater scholarship it later became apparent that some of the works attributed to Blessed Amadeo which were clearly heretical, turned out not to be by him, but rather were written by another Amadeo or even by unknown individuals, and given his name.  However at the time that Raphael was working, Blessed Amadeo’s spiritual writing was certainly popular, but not exactly acceptable, at least in certain circles.  One can imagine those reading the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, a century later, going through the same issues.

This question mark over Blessed Amadeo’s work arose even though he had not only been a confessor to Pope Sixtus IV, but he had also founded and led a reform movement of the Franciscans known as the Amadeans, who sought to bring the Friars Minor back to their roots of poverty and simplicity.  As an interesting footnote, the fact that Michelangelo’s Last Judgment appears where it does in the Sistine Chapel is likely no accident, for the structure was originally built by Blessed Amadeo’s friend, Sixtus IV.  So despite whatever controversy his spiritual writing engendered, Blessed Amadeo’s recounting of visions of heaven and the saints struck a chord with the well-read and the powerful.  He influenced not only works of art such as this, but the spirituality of influential people such as the Medici family, one of whom originally commissioned this painting from Raphael, and the Hapsburg family, particularly those in Spain.

Like other spiritual writers before and after him, Blessed Amadeo was sometimes misunderstood by his contemporaries, even while his mysticism was embraced by others.  However with the Feast of the Transfiguration today, and with Blessed Amadeo’s own feast day coming up on August 10th, we can appreciate how he has helped us to picture an event in a way which our tiny human brains can understand: a brief glimpse of the Divine in all its glory.  It also gives us, at a more earthly level, a greater appreciation that the study of great art in the Western tradition goes well-beyond simply looking at the image and understanding – or THINKING we understand – what we are seeing.  For even as this painting of the Transfiguration has a permanent impact on how we imagine that event in our own minds, the story behind how this particular interpretation came to be can be just as powerful, if we dig deeper into the story of its creation.


“The Transfiguration” by Raphael (1516-1520)
Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

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Parting the Veil: A Renaissance Masterpiece Turns 500

I was very pleased to read that Germany has issued a commemorative postage stamp celebrating the 500th anniversary of the creation of one of the most beautiful paintings in the world, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”.  This painting, or at least the lower part of it, is probably well-known to many of my readers who are not Catholic or familiar with art history because of the two small angels in the picture, who are resting their arms on the edge of the frame.  They have been adapted and used in all kinds of advertising campaigns and commercial products over the years, and have become something of an iconic image in themselves.  That being said, it is the main portion of the work itself, that of Mary holding Jesus, which is of singular importance.

The “Sistine Madonna” was commissioned in 1512 for the Benedictines of the Monastery of Saint Sixtus – hence the term “Sistine” – in the town of Piacenza, to be placed above the high altar there in the center of their monastic church.  Since 1754 however, this magnificent and highly influential work of art has been – apart from a ten-year-period after World War II when it was stolen by the Soviets – the pride of the city of Dresden.  In that year, it was purchased from the monastery by Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who placed it in his palace in Dresden, and ever since it has drawn a crowd.  Indeed, Augustus apparently rearranged his throne room so as to be able to better see and display the painting.

Raphael is one of the “Big Three” of the Italian High Renaissance, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.  He is something of a Mozart-like figure in art history, having produced seemingly effortlessly a large number of important works of art before he died in his 30′s, leaving the world wondering what he might have gone on to achieve had he lived longer.  While he could paint insightful portraits and magnificent frescoes, without question Raphael has always been best-loved as THE painter of scenes of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child.  Over the course of his comparatively short career, Raphael took this seemingly simple theme, and came up with an almost infinite number of variations on it.

The image of Mary cradling her Son in her arms is an ancient one in Christian art.  The first known artistic representation of it dates from about 200 A.D., in the form of a wall fresco located in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.  Once Christianity was no longer outlawed, it became more and more common to portray the Mother and Child in a very regal setting, crowned and seated on a throne.  One can find examples of an emotional interplay between Mary and Jesus in the first thousand years or so of Christian art, but generally speaking these were exceptions rather than the rule. With the arrival of the Renaissance, and its focus on portraying realism and linear perspective, artists began to try to make their images of the Madonna and Child more realistic and accessible, while still retaining some element of the Divine; some succeeded better than others.

While he was a part of this movement, what Raphael did in his own work was to bring three key characteristics together, to create something that had a profound impact on the viewers of his day, as well as on other artists right down to the present. He recognized, first of all, that the more beautiful the figures he portrayed in his picture, the more the viewer could reflect on the beauty of God’s creation: Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world, and Jesus, God Himself made flesh.  Raphael not only knew that people like to look at beautiful things more than they like to look at ugly things, naturally enough, but also that beauty is a reflection of Divine Perfection.

Raphael also understood that portraying an emotional connection between Mary and her Son, rather than an unapproachable, regal formality, would be more likely to evoke the sympathy of the viewer.    If the beauty of the figures drew in the eye, the realistic interaction between them made the eye linger.  In seeing the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child as analogous to that between his own mother and himself, the viewer would not only be able to relate more closely to the individuals the picture portrays, but more broadly to reflect on the love God has for mankind.

Finally, Raphael’s technique became better and better as he painted more, meaning that his somewhat cartoonish early Madonnas, mimicking the style of his master, Pietro Perugino, were gradually replaced by a careful study of nature that invited the viewer to immerse himself in the painting.  The curve of Mary’s neck with a lock of hair trailing down it, or the sun and high clouds of a Tuscan landscape bathing the countryside behind the figures in light, or the interplay between Jesus’ baby fingers with the folds of a piece of cloth, were aspects Raphael could use to keep the viewer lost in thought, and hopefully in prayer.

In the “Sistine Madonna”, Raphael quite literally pulls back the veil of Heaven, to reveal a vision of the Madonna and Child walking across celestial clouds, flanked by Pope St. Sixtus and St. Barbara, and with the aforementioned two little angels at the bottom. Both Mary and Jesus are shown as very beautiful figures, which pleases our eyes, but we soon become caught up in how the two cling to one another, as we have so often seen mothers and children do.  Here however, the symbolic importance of this emotional reaction on the part of both Mother and Child comes from what is not shown in the picture: the crucifix above the high altar that the figure of Pope Saint Sixtus is pointing to, which would have been opposite the painting in its original setting at the monastic church.

The Madonna and Child in this picture are very simply portrayed, with no crowns, thrones, or jewels.  Yet the celestial surroundings make this more than just an image of motherhood: they make us reflect on how a humble Jewish girl from Nazareth and her Divine Son went on to change the world.  Christ does so by promising forgiveness and redemption through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection; Mary by setting the example for all Christians of the importance of obedience to God’s Will, no matter what.

This was the last image of the Madonna and Child which Raphael painted in his long career of thinking about this subject, and also the last painting which he himself fully finished.  At the time of his death a few years after completing this painting, he was working on an altarpiece of the Transfiguration now kept in the Vatican, and which Bible story we heard just yesterday in the Gospel reading at mass.  That painting was carried at the head of his funeral procession to St. Peter’s Basilica.  However from my perspective, given how much it encapsulates Raphael’s unique understanding of the relationship between Christ and His Mother, his artistic talent, and his beautiful vision of Heaven, it might have been more fitting had they borrowed his “Sistine Madonna” from the monks in Piacenza for this purpose.

The “Sistine Madonna” by Raphael (1512-1513/4)
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

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Portraits and the Past

Yesterday in conversation with a well-regarded classical architect of my acquaintance, the gentleman pointed out how amazing a time it must have been for the patron of this blog, Count Castiglione, to have been alive, given that he had his portrait painted by both Raphael and Titian.  For those unfamiliar with their work – and you have a lot of catching up to do if you are not – these men were two of the artistic giants of not only the Italian Renaissance, but in all of art history.  More observant readers will spot that I use a detail from Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, specifically the Count’s folded hands, as the masthead for this site.  Yet for all of his greatness, and indeed the greatness of those who painted him, Castiglione was a mortal man, and the importance of his portraits lies not only in their beauty or technical accomplishment, but in the fact that they humanize him for us.

The art of portraiture is still being practiced at many levels in the present age, several centuries after artists like Raphael and Titian.  I have a large portrait of yours truly seated in an interior, painted by an up-and-coming Hong Kong artist friend, that stylistically falls somewhere between Kandinsky and de Kooning, for example. And at some point when I am a bit more capable of doing so, I may want to commission my friend British artist Rupert Alexander to use his considerable talents on trying to capture a visage that is often not amenable to being captured.  Someday, one hopes, they will be considered as good memorials for those who knew me, and once no one is left who remembers me, they may be appreciated as art objects – or not, given their subject matter falls far short of perfection.

The development of the formal portrait photograph has also been an important one. A snapshot portrait is fine, as far as it goes, in that it can capture a specific moment, often very informally. However there is a world of difference between you and the lads taking pictures of each other with a red-eye-reduction filter down the pub on a Tuesday night, and the work of portraitists who either try to make you look as good as possible, like George Hurrell, or who try to capture you warts and all, like Richard Avedon.  A formal portrait photograph can make a lasting impression in how we perceive an individual, in much the same way as a formal portrait painting or sculpture does.

With all of that said, the importance of the portrait through the centuries is not only as an artistic medium in which the portraitst can demonstrate his skill, or as a document for future generations, but as a symbol of continuity.  In the ancient past this was quite obvious, such as the anthropomorphic Egyptian mummy cases, or the busts of the Roman emperors.  The former was part of the theological construct for keeping the universe going and holding chaos at bay, while the latter was a way of symbolically showing that those states subject to Roman control were under a single authority.

Today, portraits of the Founding Fathers and subsequent leaders of this country are featured on things such as money, documents, etc., and yet I suspect that most people never stop to ask why.  There is no Constitutional requirement that an image of George Washington must be shown on any currency re-design that we go through, and we have been through many such re-designs over the past two centuries.  So why should we put pictures of dead people whom none of us have known on such things? After all, even monarchies like Britain put a picture of the ruling monarch, i.e. a live head of state, on their coinage and postage stamps.

An image of someone who has gone before us, whether one as large as a Sargent oil or as small as one of FDR on a dime,  provides a powerful sense of continuity with the past from human being to human being, in a way that other types of images very often cannot.  It has always seemed to me that one of the fundamental errors in sects or philosophies which eschew the representation of human beings, such as in portraiture, is a failure to appreciate that in order to live in the present, we must be reminded of from whence we have come, and how we are not so very different from those who came before us.  That connection with the past is more than simply recognizing a human genetic chain of descent, such as in the case of a monarchic dynasty: it is an acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the human species, and its ability to think about the past, present, and future.

The practical application of this for most of us is not to be found in artistic portraiture, even though I would encourage those of you with the means to do so to seriously consider commissioning a portrait drawing, painting, or the like, if ever you are able.  What you can do, however, is ask your parents, grandparents, and so on, to provide you with copies of photographs, or even photographic reproductions of the portrait of a family member, and put them on display or in an album. You may never have met your grandmother’s great-uncle Richard, but if she has a splendid picture of him taken in a photography studio when he went off to fight in World War I, what a marvelous thing that would be to have sitting on your piano or bookshelf.  Or perhaps your second cousin owns an oil portrait of your great-great-aunt as a young girl, which you may never have the chance to own yourself – perhaps you can ask to have a high-resolution photograph taken of it, and then take the image file to a photography specialist to have it printed and framed, as you would a reproduction of any work of art you might like at an art museum.

The greater the gulf of time that separates us, the more we need images of previous generations to ground us, reminding us not only of the accomplishments of our predecessors, but also of their flaws and failings.  Otherwise, we come away with the false impression that the dead were demigods and beings utterly strange to us, whose talents or day-to-day experiences are completely removed from our own.  True, most of us will probably never accomplish, in the eyes of the world, particularly great things.  Yet the men and women who did accomplish great things were frail, earthly things as we are, and by seeing portraits of them, we can remember that they got up in the morning, got dressed, had lunch, and so on, just as we do.  Adding the images of these people to those of your immediate family and friends is a way to always remind yourself of the fact that you are connected to these people, to history, and indeed to those who will come after you.

George Hurrell working on portrait photos with Rosalind Russell
Beverly Hills, 1942


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Standing In for God

Yesterday being the Feast of the Holy Trinity, no doubt many of my readers had some picture in their mind’s eye, when thinking about the Trinity, as to the three distinct Divine Persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Among the various images that may leap to mind when you think about the first is probably not that in the Baronci Altarpiece by the great High Renaissance artist Raphael. However, this depiction of God the Father is an interesting work of art for us to examine, in that it allows us the opportunity to understand the working methods of one of the most highly influential artists in history.

Raphael’s first major commission (that we know of) as a credentialed painting master was an altarpiece he began at the end of 1500 when he was seventeen years old, and which he completed by September 1501. The Baronci family had endowed a chapel in the Church of St. Augustine in Città di Castello, Umbria, and asked Raphael to decorate it for them. The resulting painting featured the Augustinian mystic St. Nicholas of Tolentino, standing over a defeated Satan in an architectural setting. St. Nicholas was flanked by the Virgin Mary, St. Augustine, and three angels, with God the Father appearing above surrounded by angels, and holding a crown over St. Nicholas’ head.

Unfortunately, the painting was heavily damaged in an earthquake in the 18th century. The surviving parts of the altarpiece were then cut up into pieces, and scattered around to various collections. One of these remaining fragments is the aforementioned image of God the Father appearing in the heavens, and shows him as the old, bearded man many of us no doubt think of when we think of the Father.

Interestingly enough for our consideration, we are fortunate in that some of Raphael’s preparatory drawings for the Baronci Altarpiece have been preserved, and are today in the Musee des Beaux Arts in the French city of Lille. As you can see from the comparison of the drawing and the final image shown below, Raphael’s work was a combination of both observation and imagination. He had an assistant wearing a skullcap stand in the pose he wanted the figure of God the Father to be holding in the painting, so that he could get the composition and shadowing of the figure right. The final product looks little like the young man who acted as the stand-in for God the Father, other than perhaps their respective noses, and the fact that they hold the same pose.

Oftentimes when we see an Old Master painting like this one, we do not have the sketches and preparatory drawings made by the painter to look at as a point of comparison. This makes the Baronci Altarpiece, even in its present fragmented state, all the more special. When examined alongside the surviving drawings, it gives us a good idea of how the young Raphael liked to work. It is also astounding that someone as young as Raphael was at the time could produce such a balanced, carefully studied composition, reminding me more than just a little of Mozart’s facility with musical composition more than two centuries later.

We will never know the identity of the young man who stood in for God the Father when Raphael was coming up with this design, though we cannot help but think what was going through his mind when he had to pose as God for a period of time while Raphael worked out his ideas. His arms probably got tired, of course, but I think most of us would also be slightly uncomfortable knowing that we are standing in the place of the Creator. Yet being made in the image and likeness of God as we are, it is only appropriate that such a beautiful piece was arrived at by Raphael through carefully reflecting on the face and form of one of God’s children – a child who, in turn, is a reflection of the Father.

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