Tracing Raphael’s Development: looking at the growth of an artist from student to master

Name: Ekabali Ghosh     Class: UG II     Roll No: 001400401017

Raffaello  Sanzio da Urbino, better known as Raphael is one of the most famous names of the Italian High Renaissance. Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael is considered part of the High Renaissance Trinity of Art. Raphael did not have a very long life. He lived for only 37 years. The date of his birth is not certain. It could be April 6 or March 28 of the year 1483. He died in April 6, 1520. However, his life was hugely productive and Raphael has left us with a brilliant corpus of artwork-both in quality and quantity. Through these works, we can see Raphael as the growing artist. His relation to his master Perugino, his independent learning from Leonardo and the ultimate Raphael in his supposed last painting-Transfiguration. Yet, there is a sense of originality pervading throughout his works. Raphael’s project is to use forms and devices available to him and produce something far better than what has been produced before. Michelangelo, somewhat unjustly and resentfully said: “everything he learned, he learned from me.” Raphael’s early paintings show a clear influence of Perugino, his master but because Raphael was, in his own right, a brilliant artist, overshadowed now by the crowning glory of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo himself. Perhaps what makes Raphael so great is that Raphael never stopped experimenting and innovating. He remained a curious student all his life. Raphael may have found himself in the midst of professional rivalry with the other two artists, but that did not cloud his judgement.  He took great pains to improve and emulate at the great vexation of the other two geniuses(source: Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects).

This paper intends to explore the growing Raphael. Since Raphael has left us with a huge body of works, we can only discuss a few select ones here. I have chosen The Marriage of the Virgin and his sketches of the male human figure in the nude assuming the pose of Michelangelo’s David as starting points. Although Raphael’s The Marriage of the Virgin has a striking external resemblance to a pre-existing painting Marriage of the Virgin generally accredited to Perugino. However it is now sometimes attributed to Perugino’s pupil Lo Spagna. (Source: There are far too many differences between the two pictures to pass the second one as just as just something influenced by the first. We must consider the first as a starting point for Raphael to produce something new, different and dramatic. Perugino’s(?) Marriage of the Virgin has a gentle, blurry style. In contrast, Raphael’s style is dramatic. Looking at the two pictures together will give us a clear idea of this.


Marriage of the Virgin by Perugino(?).


The Marriage of the Virgin by Raphael.

If we carefully notice the two paintings we see that Raphael’s painting is more compact in colour giving it a dramatic effect. More importantly, Raphael’s painting is clearly more geometric. There is a triangular pattern in both pictures but the base angles of Raphael’s painting are clearly smaller than the base angles in the other painting. This imparts to Raphael’s painting clarity of perspective making the people in front the focus of the painting and the temple behind, the background. Rapahel’s temple has more sides than Perugino’s. It is indeed nearly round in shape. This, too, is a part of the mastery of perspective that Raphael shows in this picture. In the first painting, the top of the temple is unseen but in Raphael’s version, it can be seen. This along with the angular management of perspective makes Raphael’s temple look smaller and therefore gives the impression of being in the distance allowing viewers to notice the people in front first. Here, too, Raphael takes pains to make sure that Mary and Joseph are the centres of attention. Unlike the first painting where Mary stands next to the other women and brushes bodies with them, in Raphael’s painting Mary stands dignified distance away. This serves two purposes. In terms of content, it distinguishes Mary as pure and different from the rest and in terms of form, it arrests the viewer’s eyes making Mary and Joseph the focus amongst the people. Even the clothes in Raphael’s painting are better done. Joseph’s narrower yellow shawl in Raphael’s painting is more vibrant against the backdrop of his darker coloured robe. In comparison, Perugino’s(if at all it was painted by the master) Joseph’s wide shawl is rather bland. The men who stand behind Joseph are failed suitors, one of them desperately breaking his rod in pointless anger while Joseph’s rod holds a flower at its tip. Here, again the bend of this suitor and his action is more pronounced than in the earlier painting. Therefore, we can safely say that Raphael is not “copying” anybody else’s style. He has his clear ideas on perspective and has already started to develop his distinct style which is clear-cut, dramatic and precocious. Constant self-improvement would only make it better and better.

Raphael’s drawings of male nudes are said to have been greatly influenced by Michelangelo’s David. However, David has a unity of form and expression that makes it a complete artwork. In Raphael’s three drawings, Raphael does not seem interested in creating that unity. What sparks Raphael’s interest is the behind of the sculpture. Even in one drawing where he did draw a face he drew it without expression. The twenty one year old Raphael seems to be searching for a new way to draw figures, which is a departure from his earlier way of drawing. This would ultimately lead to art very different from his earlier art. His absorption of Leonardo’s work and his acute study of Michelangelo’s would lead to paintings like The Bridgewater Madonna with its pyramidal structure and with its brilliant expression complete with eye contact between the Virgin and her child.

The number of Madonnas drawn by Raphael drastically increases while he stays at Florence. A bustling centre of art with its rich patrons, aristocratic Florentines needed paintings to adorn their chapels and their homes. Sometimes small paintings with religious themes were placed inside bedrooms. The Madonna of the Pinks is one such painting. It is 9 inches across and many think it to be too small to adorn walls. The painting must have served a utilitarian purpose-probably that of holding on to it while praying. Looking at two of the Madonnas Raphael drew in Florence will help us understand his work better.

The Madonna of the Pinks ('La Madonna dei Garofani'), about 1506-7. Oil on yew, 27.9 x 22.4 cm. Bought with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation), the American Friends of the National Gallery, the George Beaumont Group, Sir Christopher Ondaatje and through public appeal, 2004 (NG6596).

The Madonna of the Pinks (‘La Madonna dei Garofani’)

Niccolini Madonna

The Niccolini Cowper Madonna

The Madonna of the Pinks suggests a unity between the Virgin and Baby Jesus. Eye contact between mother and child is an important way of showing the bond that exists between them. It is also suggestive of unity, a humanistic principle that Renaissance men particularly admired after the classical period they wished to emulate. The unity in Madonna of the Pinks is of an external kind, it is not a unity of biology. Biological or fleshly unity between mother and son would follow in one of the last paintings to be drawn by Raphael before leaving Florence. The Niccolini Cowper Madonna is an improvement on the Small Cowper Madonna that Raphael had painted before. The figures of Mary and Jesus are connected by the baby wanting to be nursed by the mother. Here we find the earthliness that Raphael is famous for. The connection of Madonna and Christ is not just spiritual anymore. It is biological, he is a part of her. Raphael crosses convention to show the cord of motherliness that the divine Jesus experiences with his mother Mary. In the 16th century this was a radical way of painting. Earliness was new along with the development of humanism. Physicality was just beginning to be explored. The human being’s point of view was for the first time at the centre of a painting. However, Raphael’s painting is not just earthly. Madonna and Christ take up much of the frame of the painting thereby imposing their presence on the viewers, connecting and not connecting to them at the same time, remaining a picture of the divine and of the human at the same time.

The relative secularity of the Renaissance as opposed to the rootedness in Christian values of the preceding times sometimes appears confounding. On one hand there are the Raphael Rooms of the Sistine Chapel, rooms which are replete with religious imagery and Bible themed frescoes. These however have amongst them a less Christian celebration of learning. In the Stanza della Signatura, are two paintings-The School of Athens and The Parnassus which are representations of philosophy and poetry in that order. It is interesting to note how the Papacy, too, sees the importance of humanistic education thereby integrating the Classical with the Christian. Since the Renaissance is a revival of Classical learning, there is a challenge to the Papacy to implement a non-Christian ideal to the Christian world. This can be traced in the Raphael Rooms too. The close proximity of The Disputa and The School of Athens is remarkable. Both paintings have a common contention-the dispute between the ideal and the actual, between “Church Militant” and the “Church Triumphant”(source: and between Plato(following the Socratic ideal) and Aristotle and his actual. However, The School of Athens and The Parnassus never makes it to the roof of the Sistine Chapel. They are part of the earthly, the roof is reserved for the Christian divine.

The Parnassus shows Apollo in the centre playing a musical instrument with nine muses, nine poets from antiquity and nine contemporary poets. The idea is not to create something to please the eyes. Beauty here is sublime, Neo Platonism through the visual. The four paintings representing justice(The Disputa), philosophy(The School of Athens), poetry(The Parnassus) and virtue(‘The Cardinal Virtue’) signify unity, a completeness which the humanists sought and more importantly their point of view about the idea of completeness.

Perhaps the most mature painting of Raphael’s is Transfiguration, painted between 1518 and 1520, a depiction of a scene from The Bible where Jesus takes some of his loyal followers to reveal himself as divine, one of the many miracles that The Bible credits Jesus with. The painting also has another episode from the Bible in it-that of the healing of a boy possessed by a demon. The painting shows Raphael’s art in full glory with the maturity of an experienced painter. A photograph of the painting is attached below:



Raphael’s mastery of light is the most notable feature of this painting. The figure of Christ is glorious in his halo from the “bright cloud” that appears behind hm. The brightness does not just illuminate Christ. It illuminates everyone around him in various degrees. Raphael’s colour palette makes the painting breathtakingly beautiful. The moments captured in the painting have great dramatic potential and Raphael uses it to its full extent. He does not forsake the solid and dramatic quality of his work in favour of a more conventional softness. Instead he reaches the sublime through the dramatic. The fact that the painting includes two episodes-The Miracle of the Possessed Boy on a lower level and The Transfiguration on an upper level makes the painting an enigma. Various reasons have been suggested, one of them by Gordon Bendersky in his essay “Remarks about Raphael”(source:jstor). Bendersky suggests that the Hebrew meaning of “Raphael” is “God heals”. Therefore, this may be Raphael’s way of signing his painting, keeping it an enigma in the process. But since the purpose here is to show how Raphael develops from Perugino’s stellar pupil to an artist of great independent talent, we will not go into the reasons as to why he integrated the two episodes. The fact remains that he did integrate them quite effortlessly blending the two so naturally that they look like they happened simultaneously. The miraculous healing of the possessed boy seems like it belongs there, with The Transfiguration(the episode of the “lunatic” boy happens after The Transfiguration in The Gospels). This is Raphael at his best, unifying episodes in one frame as the companions of the sick boy acknowledge and acclaim Christ. Transfiguration is not just realism or just the human being’s way of looking at things. He uses realism to ultimately transcend realism and by doing so Raphael freezes time and space through art.

By playing with light the way Raphael has in this painting, he has taken the first steps towards Mannerism. Effect takes precedence over form, space and colour. There is also an underlying dichotomy in the content-the redemptive power of Christ above and the faults of man below. Ultimately this dichotomy is resolved with the groundlings looking up to Christ for deliverance thereby unifying the painting. However, this realization of dichotomies, creation of a different space and removing any concept of underlying geometry resulting in the importance of content over measurements make Transfiguration transcendental. Here we see Raphael emerge in full glory, not just adopting but also innovating yet still obsessed with newness. Perhaps what makes Raphael so great is that he never stands still, he always improves and thereby is able to set new heights for himself. Beginning from Urbino, Raphael has come a long way, a journey that he made with the curiosity of a student and the innovation of the master.


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