Raphael – The High Renaissance Hero

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Raphael was a very talented young artist of the High Renaissance, known around the world for both his glorious paintings and architecture. The High Renaissance was a time of the development of arts, science and technology. More and more artists, including Raphael were showcasing precision, perspective and use of science in their work.

The High Renaissance, was dominated by the three artists – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael.

Raphael Sanzio was the youngest of the three artists. He was born in 1483 to the painter Giovanni Sanzio. Giovanni Sanzio, was a painter for the court of Federigo da Montefeltro and had taught Raphael the basic techniques of painting before he died, when Raphael was only 11 years of age.

After his father’s death, Raphael went to the town of Perugia and worked as an apprentice under the mentorship of the then famous painter Pietro Perugino. Pietro is known to have created the masterpieces like Christ Delivering the keys of the kingdom to St. Peter and The Deposition. Raphael learnt various techniques and use of shade and light; depth and perspective for which he would later become famous. Raphael soon started creating works recognized as masterpieces himself, although still as a student of Perugino.

marriage of virgin

One such masterpiece created by Raphael is The Marriage of the Virgin. In this painting, Raphael has captured the mood and emotions of the scene in a very realistic way. The background has such depth to it, yet it does not over-power the figures in the foreground. These people in the foreground are shown to have emotions and a natural movement, a highlight of the High Renaissance.

In 1504, Raphael moved to Florence, and that is where he first truly made a name for himself as an artist. In Florence lived and worked some of the geniuses of the High Renaissance including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work of anatomy and Leonardo’s use of light and shadow. Raphael used all his newly developed knowledge and skills into creating paintings of the Madonna. He became famous for his style of portraying the Madonna.

Raphael’s Madonna are very human. She has emotions, grace and beauty. She has movement and was almost always in a natural environment sitting on a rock in the middle of Mother Nature. Many popular artists had portrayed the Madonna as an angel-like woman, but Raphael brought perspective; he combined spirituality with reality in a way that everybody could relate to.

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One such popular painting is The Madonna of the Goldfinch. In the painting, Madonna is shown holding St. John and baby Jesus on a rock. St. John is found holding a Goldfinch for Jesus.

The tiny bird Goldfinch is a symbol of Jesus’s suffering and the painting shows Jesus stroking its head. It is almost as if foretelling the sufferings of Jesus’s future. But the painting is also about a mother and her son, where St. John has the expression of an excited child wanting to show a pet and Jesus wanting to touch it while Madonna looks at her son protectively. It has this tender emotion of children being very child-like and the bond of mother and son is also expressed very tenderly. If one looks carefully, St. John has his foot on his mother’s foot, leaning on his mother to show the bird. Here, one can see the skin-to-skin human contact bringing in the element of reality in divinity.

Another aspect of this painting that is interesting is the portrayal of baby Jesus. In the painting, Jesus does not look like a child having fun or expressing innocence. Although a child, Jesus’s face shows wisdom and knowledge. Raphael has communicated this very beautifully through the grace, body posture and the child’s expression. Unlike in 13th century paintings, where baby Jesus was always given a face of a grown up man in the body of a child, here Raphael has expressed this through the incredible body language of the Christ. The Christ is show stroking the Goldfinch with his arm raised, head tilted back and standing in this incredible contapposto that no child is found in.

In the painting of the Madonna of the Goldfinch, Raphael also embraces the reality of Mother Nature. Unlike in the early Renaissance, where Madonna was always shown sitting on a throne, in this painting Madonna is sitting on a rock, with a beautiful atmospheric perspective in the background as if to say that nature itself is her throne.

The painting has a pyramid composition of Madonna with St. John and Jesus on both sides of her showing balance, yet another important element of High Renaissance art.

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Raphael had established his own unique style in painting but one could see the influence of Leonardo and Michelangelo in his painting. Madonna of the Goldfinch appears to be influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the rocks. Raphael uses the influences of Leonardo’s light and shadow; and Michelangelo’s perfection of human anatomy. He makes it unique by keeping the tone light and colourful.

Raphael was also invited to the Vatican to paint some stanza’s in 1508 by Pope Julius II. Of all the stanza’s he was commissioned to paint, the one he drew himself was the Stanza della Segnatura. Stanza della Segnatura comprises four walls representing theology, poetry, law and philosophy. One of the most famous stanzas is The School of Athens, representing philosophy.

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The School of Athens is an exquisite expression of the catholic world of the High Renaissance embracing the classic world. The painting has brought the world’s most renowned scientists, mathematicians, philosopher and scholars of the ancient Greece under one roof.

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The School of Athens has a rather unique composition, as it brings High Renaissance Roman architecture together with the ancient Greek scholars. It is a fantasy as if to say that these people are legends and shall live in every era moving forward.  Its linear composition is such that it brings the attention to the centre of top centre of the wall, where one can see the most important figures of western thinking Plato and his student Aristotle. Plato in red is pointing upwards representing the spiritual world that transcends the everyday and Aristotle is pointing down, representing his philosophy of observation with our senses, things that are tangible as opposed to Plato’s philosophy of seeing beyond tangible things.

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The painting has a nature of duality lingering around the two central figures. And it can be seen in its architecture as well. On Plato’s side, one can see Apollo on the wall representing music and poetry whereas on the other side there’s Athena representing war and wisdom.

The splendid architecture alleviates the characters and helps tell the story. It helps celebrate the whole painting as an achievement of human beings potential. The painting has so many important figures, like on the left bottom one can see the great Greek philosopher Heraclitus resting his elbow on a metal box wearing heavy boots an writing something. Now, at this point Raphael didn’t know how Heraclitus looked and hence, he replaced him with Michelangelo. One can almost see it as either a mockery or tribute to Michelangelo’s splendid seated figures.

Amongst various other astronomers, Raphael has painted himself looking straight at us. Raphael has created a real genius in this painting and it narrates a story that resonates till date.

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