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.