Action Frozen in Time: The Drama and Divinity in Raphael’s Paintings [DHRITI SHANKAR (UG 2, Roll No.: 40)]



  • “The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. To the question, therefore, which ought to hold the first rank, Raffaelle or Michael Angelo, it must be answered, that if it is to be given to him who possessed a greater combination of the higher qualities of the art than any other man, there is no doubt but Raffaelle is the first. But if, according to Longinus, the sublime, being the highest excellence that human composition can attain to, abundantly compensates the absence of every other beauty, and atones for all other deficiencies, then Michael Angelo demands the preference.” : Sir Joshua Reynolds.
  • “The doom of the arts of Europe went forth from that chamber [the Stanza della Segnatura], and it was brought about in great part by the very excellencies of the man who had thus marked the commencement of decline. The perfection of execution and the beauty of feature which were attained in his works, and in those of his great contemporaries, rendered finish of execution and beauty of form the chief objects of all artists; and thenceforward execution was looked for rather than thought, and beauty rather than veracity. And as I told you, these are the two secondary causes of the decline of art; the first being the loss of moral purpose. Pray note them clearly. In mediæval art, thought is the first thing, execution the second; in modern art execution is the first thing, and thought the second. And again, in mediæval art, truth is first, beauty second; in modern art, beauty is first, truth second. The mediæval principles led up to Raphael, and the modern principles lead down from him.” : John Ruskin.

Cited above are a couple of contrasting views of two very influential figures whose ideas went a long way towards shaping and reshaping the history of modern artistic and even literary movements like Neoclassicism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Raphael, even almost four hundred years after his demise, was still so alive and controversial too. What could be a better evidence of his immense greatness?


Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, born in 1483 A.D., was not only acclaimed in his own time as one of the most influential artists of the High Renaissance forming the Grand Trinity, but continued to be regarded as a harbinger of a significant drift that changed the history of Renaissance painting forever. Coming down particularly on Raphael’s classical poses and elegant compositions as the catalyst in triggering the mechanistic approach of the Mannerist painters in the High Renaissance period, the eminent members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought to reform that approach towards art in the nineteenth century by calling themselves ‘Pre-Raphaelites’. The impact of Raphael’s works has been so far-reaching. Worthy critics have analysed his art from multiple angles. In this essay, it has been our endeavour to identify the way the Italian Master managed to manipulate his technique to capture spontaneity of action and bring in classical myths and themes into a perfectly humanised form with rich luminosity of texture.

It has been pointed out by various critics that the expression in the faces drawn by Raphael always retains the human touch sans any mysterious or supernatural overtone that might be perceived in the works of his great foregoing contemporaries like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), from whose styles he borrowed extensively as will be discussed later. What strikes as peculiar in those Raphaelite expressions, however, is a very special and poised sense of submission, that often pervades even in the most unusual thematic backgrounds of his works. One of his masterpieces, “St. George and the Dragon” (fig. 2), strongly reminiscent of Leonardo’s drawings of knights and their horses, can be taken up and specifically examined in this context as a typical case to study Raphael’s artistic motive behind the expressions in the visages of his subjects. The only sketch for this painting that is available indicates the artist’s main concern with the developing figures and the movement of the animals. The complex interplay of the contrapposto conceptualized in the original sketch (fig. 1) remains intact and almost completely unchanged in the final product. But what Raphael most deliberately discards from the sketch is the element of fierceness and aggression both from the faces of the horse and the dragon, and St. George. Instead, a certain calmness pervades the faces of the horse and its rider, while the dragon’s eyes suggest almost a submissive gesture under the raised blade of the sword. The sense of movement is sought to be suggested by the running woman towards the right of the canvas and not by the turbulence of the surrounding dust as suggested in the sketch. Instead, the trees in the background too, depict a tranquility otherwise absent in the sketch, as the hills disappear with the sfumato effect (blending of tones). This drift from turbulence to tranquility, fierceness to submissiveness appears to be a strong aesthetic statement made out by the artist, instead of just a brilliantly executed technical finesse frozen in time. The action depicted is striking in its stillness and the range of colours that varies from soft blending to sharp brightness calling to mind the unione mode of colouring invented by Raphael in about 1509. This approach of colouring is characterized by toning down colour saturation and limiting colour values to create a greater sense of unity in the distribution of colours across the surface of the picture. In this case, this technique helps in toning down a certain emotional dynamism in the expression of his figures that is rare in his contemporaries like Michelangelo who preferred pure colours or rather the contrasting cangiante mode of colouring which is characterized by the painter’s changing to a different, lighter, hue when the original hue cannot be made light enough or, on the converse, changing to a darker hue when the original hue cannot be made dark enough. Raphael, by contrast, always preferred the unione mode or the sfumato effect which is so telling and significant in the context of his mental make-up that prized a calmness and serenity of temperament above all.

Fig. 1 & Fig. 2


Portraits drawn by Raphael are a vital source for the analysis of his artistic motives. “Lady of the Unicorn” (fig. 3), one of Raphael’s earliest Florentine portraits, owes much to Leonardo’s  “Mona Lisa” in its design. However, the clarity of light which infuses even the shadows with colour not only recalls Raphael’s early exposure to the paintings of Piero della Francesca, but also in itself a statement he wanted to make through his art. Raphael’s obsessive experiments with clarity of features cannot be construed as a mere influence of his teachers or contemporaries. Somewhere deep down, deliberation to do away with the mysterious haziness associable with divine or religious mystification must have inspired the Italian great to incorporate the quasi-religious aspects of the Renaissance spirit in his art, which Michelangelo did through his overtly muscular portrayal of Biblical figures and saints. Raphael’s down-to-earth realism has no room for mysticism. So out goes the treasured smile of “Mona Lisa” in Raphael’s “Lady of the Unicorn”, replaced rather by an aristocratic pride accompanied with the phallic symbol of the unicorn’s horn.

lady of the unicorn

Fig. 3

“Portrait of a Cardinal” (fig. 4) is another outstanding example of Raphael’s Roman portraits. At the centre of this harmonious composition Raphael adds a curious psychological note in the melancholy eyes that illuminate the cardinal’s pallid and exhausted countenance. The portrait has been drawn in accordance with Leonardo’s opinion that portraits can be drawn best with a dark background. A reference to dark backgrounds may remind the reader of Raphael’s Florentine period under the influence of Leonardo when he produced “Granduca Madonna” (fig. 5), the masterpiece where he was able to draw exquisite rhythmical modulations out of the motionless simplicity of the design. Giorgio Vasari noted that Raphael excelled in creating effects of drapery folds disappearing into shadows and coming forward into light, and that he knew how to relate the colours of drapery to the flesh tones so that semi-nude figures did not seem cut into two. “Granduca Madonna” shows the perfect execution of the above technique to achieve softness and unity, with the semi-nude Child’s drapery blending beautifully with the tint of his flesh and the Madonna’s clothes blending elegantly with the black background with soft edges that create relief in an atmosphere of harmonious submissiveness to the divine.

Fig. 4 & Fig. 5


Raphael’s compositional breadth led him to attempt ambitious themes both religious and classical. Behind the spiritual facades as also the frequently supernatural backgrounds of his paintings, Raphael could always include elements of mundanity and basic humanist motives as his world-view. “Resurrection of Christ” (fig. 6), a painting from his earliest phase when he drew upon the lessons of Perugino and Pinturicchio, is a classic example to show how mundanity and divinity can be made to co-exist in a rare synthesis of the two worlds. Not only the lack of a properly pronounced halo around Jesus’ head; but, his countenance too, bears the signs of a very human meekness verging on an almost pathetic expression sans any glow of divine light or inspiration. The divinity is instead hinted at by the richness of the natural flora that Jesus leaves behind; in the rising sun peeping beside his right foot. The drama of the scene could not have been more defined without the lack of a pronounced divinity as in Raphael’s creative world, the dramatic element is derived from a natural harmony that despite its apparent self-sufficiency in a very worldly way, becomes reminiscent of something by virtue of its very absence, divinity itself. The superfluous details and realistic backdrop create an oppressive perfection, a perfection to a fault that opens the viewers’ mind to something greater. An ascetic dissatisfaction and disdain often pervades the atmosphere in Raphael’s creative world essentially accompanied with a naturalistic sufficiency, a trend to be discussed later.


Fig. 6

Anton Raphael Mengs judged Raphael’s chiaroscuro as imitative and called his colouring rough and ordinary. However, in Heinrich Wolfflin’s Classic Art of 1899, from which much modern formalist criticism takes its cue, colour and chiaroscuro are subordinated to qualities of disegno as the perfection of Raphael’s art is analysed for its composition, spatiousness, lucidity and unity. But indeed, the minimal usage of chiaroscuro conveys more than just Raphael’s tendency to produce “natural effects” as critic Janis C. Bell claims. Lomazzo stated that Raphael created a convincing distribution of light according to nature. He also looked at the way color was applied: Raphael avoided too much blending and dilution which makes a work seem weak and he also avoided seduction of too much boldness and sketchiness. The first characterized central Italian maniera painting, the second the Venetians, especially the late works of Titian and Tintoretto, as Bell points out. It was not Raphael’s limitation that his art did not extensively include the tricky artifice of chiaroscuro. There must have been conscious deliberation on his part, for as Vasari explained that colour affects meaning, not just on the level of colour symbolism, but also on the level of colour practice. The drama behind the soft manner of painting St. Francis in the “Foligno Madonna” (fig. 7) is a visual metaphor for the soft melting of affection that Francis experiences on viewing the Madonna and Child; in a more literal way, the colours of the flesh of Lucifer in the St. Michael show all the shades of anger produced by his venomous and swollen pride. Dolce emphasizes the appropriateness of Raphael’s flesh tones to express the tenderness of children, robustness of men, delicacy of women and to distinguish the character of a peasant working in the fields from a scholar. He saw all. And he painted all. Retaining the immense diversity inside a basic unity of tone, tenor and texture. Like a god.

Foligno madonna

Fig. 7


Thus we have seen how exactly Raphael could seamlessly intertwine various elements of classical and religious sentiments by a tonal blending appropriating the canvas for a harmonious interplay of a number of powerful emotions. “The School of Athens” (fig. 8), like the other frescoes in the Stanza dell Segnatura, is sublimely conceived (elaborately on the theme of philosophy) and realised with astonishing compositional and painterly skill.

school of athens

Fig. 8

Here we can see, how Raphael’s historical sense often led him to portray great historical figures with the features of his own illustrious contemporaries; for example the face of Plato, believed by many scholars to be modelled on Leonardo da Vinci. In the place of the face of Heraclitus, the face of Michelangelo has been drawn. Breathing new life into past historical contexts in this novel manner not only betrays a playful gesture by the Italian maestro, but also a sheer affinity for dramatizing the past and the present by juxtaposing one with the other to play around with the motif of time. Structurally “The School of Athens”, “Parnassus” (fig. 9) and “Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple” (fig. 10), the three frescoes, show a similarity in maintaining a masterly equilibrium in crowd scenes using architectural elements as a strong centralizing force (much as in “Marriage of the Virgin”), not simply as a background.

Fig. 9 & Fig. 10

A similarity of motifs is noticeable in the way of depiction of violent action in “St. George and the Dragon”, “Galatea” (fig. 11) and “Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple” as the artist in all three of the said paintings and frescoes chooses to freeze the momentum at the crisis moment, just before when the violence is expected to reach its ultimate height. Just as in most of our nightmares we wake up at a moment of crisis, Raphael here seeks to give permanence to a moment of crisis by keeping the viewer anticipating the future, but not depicting it directly. The action is frozen in time forever, perpetuating a feeling of vitality and premonition.


Fig. 11

Striking a different note, “The Deposition” (fig. 12) can be pointed out as a painting, where, as critic Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupre says, for the first time, Raphael’s subject is the action itself, as a historical event. The Holy Woman kneeling at the right, twisting as she attempts to support the Blessed Virgin, is a precise reference – the first – to the “Tondo Doni” of Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s sculpture influences the other motifs in this work such as the body of Christ.


Fig. 12

“The Liberation of St. Peter” (fig. 13) is a high point in the art of Raphael and in the art of late Renaissance. The countenance of the angel is filled with a mingled expression of pity, pain and empathy all of which have been rendered without the least hint at divine indifference or detachment that is so often done in Renaissance rendition of Biblical events. The whole vibrance and verve of the scene is created through the contrast between the holy light emanating from the background and the somnolent, painful, merciful and especially human expression in the visages of the subjects depicted behind the heavy grills of the prison. At another level, the painting becomes a metaphor for life itself where human souls are imprisoned with the chains of sin.


Fig. 13


The realism in Raphael, with all its loveliness and perfection, displeased the Neoclassicists and Pre-Raphaelites as they pointed out the lack of so-called divinity in his figures. What Raphael actually aimed at was to find the divine in the mundane, as in the innocent beauty in the face of “Sistine Madonna” (fig. 14) or the famous “Madonna of the Chair” (fig. 15) with all its outstanding compositional rhythm. The perfection of mundanity, to the eyes of the Pre-Raphaelites, might have appeared to be more wanton and voluptuous than gracefully spiritual. What Raphael wanted to depict, on the other hand, was strictly the reality as he perceived it, and it appears that in his understanding the way institutionalized religion ‘otherised’ Biblical characters like Madonna and the Child as completely other-worldly, was not proper. If this triggered later Mannerist paintings to lose itself in sensuality and lack of spiritual nuances, it was not Raphael’s fault, for his work, with all its oppressive realism, always iterates spiritual narratives in a most humanist way.

Fig. 14 & Fig. 15


  1. Dupre, Maria Grazia Ciardi. Raphael. London: Bloomsbury Books, 1985.
  2. Bell, Janis C. “The Critical Reception of Raphael’s Colouring in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries.” Indiana University Press 9 (1996): 199-215. Accessed September 30, 2015.
  3. Rasponi, Simonetta. Michelangelo. Italy: Avenel Books, 1978.
  4. The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Art. Edited by Bernard L. Myers and Trewin Copplestone. London: Trewin Copplestone Publishers, 1977.
  5. Bacci, Mina. Da Vinci. Translated by J. Tanguy. London: Eaglemoss Publication Limited, 1984.



                                                                                Dhriti Shankar

                                                                            (UG-2, Roll No. 40)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s