Transforming the Renaissance: A Look at Raphael's Last Altarpiece

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People travel all over the world to see the paintings of Raphael. Even for those less familiar with art, his name is a recognizable one. He makes up the third person of the beloved trinity of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. His creative output is unique from the other two in its immensity, spanning from detailed sketches and life-like portraits to exquisite altarpieces. One of his most outstanding works is his painting the Transfiguration. To best understand this work, however, it is important to first have an understanding of the artist.

Who was Raphael Santi? Raphael was born to Giovanni Santi and Magia di Battista Ciarla in the year 1483 in the city of Urbino. His father Giovanni was a painter, as well as a courtier, for the court of Guidobaldo da Montefeltro. Raphael had two other siblings born after him but both died in their youth. With the death of Raphael’s mother, Magia, in 1491, Giovanni remarried to Bernardina di Piero. When his father died in the year 1494, Bartolommeo Santi, brother to the late Giovanni, became Raphael’s guardian. Beyond this, little is known about Raphael’s early life, which provides an incomplete picture of the influences that formed his character. Despite these unknown beginnings and influences, Vasari paints a glowing picture of Raphael, not only as an artist but also as a person. He writes,

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“The large and liberal hand where with Heaven is sometimes pleased to accumulate the infinite riches of its treasures on the head of one sole favorite, showering on him all those rare gifts and graces which are commonly distributed among a larger number of individuals and accorded at long intervals of time only, has been clearly exemplified in the well-known instance of Raphael Sanzio of Urbino.”

Vasari was not the only one impressed; it seems the strong feelings about Raphael’s personal traits were shared by many art patrons at the time, which served to advance him professionally. It appears he was generous, honest, affectionate, loving and reliable to all those who encountered him.

The first record of Raphael’s work as an artist is in the year 1500. He would have been 17 years old at the time. Author Jürg Meyer Zur Cappellen notes, “The fact that the [contract] speaks of Raphael… as a magister and that the contractual arrangement supplies him with a colleague, Evangelista di Pian di Meleto, has greatly puzzled scholars for a long time.” This shows two important aspects of Raphael’s early life. The first is that at a very young age, Raphael was already recognized as a great painter, partly because he had the responsibility of his father’s studio. On the other hand, it points back to the problem that there are many unknowns about the life of Raphael. One question is regarding who Raphael studied under: it is likely that he worked as a boy in his father’s studio but may have gone elsewhere after his father’s death. An answer to this question, proposed by Vasari and other knowledgeable historians, is that Raphael was trained by Perugino, especially because his earliest work closely echoes the latter. Raphael’s true career as an artist, however, with his first commission. This commission came from a citizen of the city of Castello, a city not too far from Raphael’s hometown. While visiting this city, Raphael would have had the opportunity to study the work of Luca Signorelli, which helped him develop his technique for drawing the human figure. Following the completion of his first altarpiece, Raphael was rewarded with a few commissions, one after another. From this point forward, Raphael’s career opened up before him. He went to receive commissions in Perugia next, followed by long periods of work in Florence and Rome. Author Konrad Oberhuber notes that the characteristics of each region lent something special and unique to Raphael’s skills. His growth as an artist must have been directly related to both the specific challenges, dynamics, and styles he encountered in each area. As he continued to work, Raphael became known as, “The universal painter, the master of harmony.”

While Raphael’s pieces are each well-worth studying individually, there is something special about his last altarpiece: The Transfiguration. To understand the purpose of the piece, it is first essential to understand what an altarpiece was during the Renaissance. Historian Loren Patridge explains, “Altarpieces gave visual form to beliefs about the Mass or Eucharist… [it] also generally reflected the dedication of the altar and the interest of the patron… Its commission and execution were understood in themselves as good works, as public expressions of piety and devotion, which-- along with the devotions performed before it-- would help merit salvation.” In this way, the piece would not only be important for the faith of those who came in contact with it, it would also be important for the faith of artist himself.

Raphael dedicated the last two years of his life to working on this piece. Oberhuber writes, “The first ideas for it were produced earlier, possibly shortly after he received the commission in 1516.” The piece was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. It was intended for the Narbonne Cathedral in France, where the Cardinal was archbishop. It is obvious that the Cardinal had high expectations; in order to perhaps prompt Raphael to paint as well as he possibly could, the former also commissioned another painter to paint for the same place. This second painter was Sebastiano del Piombo, and his commission was the Raising of Lazarus. This made the process a rivalry of sorts. It is said that Sebastiano would not have truly been a rival to Raphael. However, Sebastiano did have the help of Michelangelo with some of the drawings and this made him a valid opponent. It was not only important to each of the artists to complete the commission and have their painting chosen, however. Their main concern was to create something that surpassed their own previous works (and the works of others), which would thus allow them to have a lasting influence on the world of art. This would both benefit them personally and benefit the world as a whole. For Raphael, more specifically, it would have been not only embarrassing but damaging to his reputation if he were to lose the competition.

Fortunately, Raphael embraced this challenge. Preliminary pieces show that his original plan was to paint only the actual Transfiguration scene. The Transfiguration takes place in the New Testament of the The Bible. It occurs when Jesus and three of his followers, Peter, James and John go up to a mountain-top. While praying, Jesus is transfigured and two men of the Old Testament, Moses and Elijah, appear. Following this, God’s voice is heard, which stood as confirmation and proof of Jesus’ identity as the divine son of God. With its supernatural element, it seems like this narrative would have been enough for Raphael’s altarpiece but with the addition of the competition, Raphael changed course. Partridge adds, “To compete more effectively with Sebastiano, he added the story of the miracle immediately following it in the Bible-- but never before linked with it in a painting-- the Healing of the Lunatic Boy.” This story, also from the New Testament, shows the apostles trying to heal a demon-possed boy and failing, due to the absence of Christ. In the story, upon his return, Jesus casts out the demons and reprimands his apostles for their lack of faith.

With the narrative in place, Raphael painted the piece itself. The work he produced is so incredible that it is seen as, “A summation of his art and his bequest to humanity.” Oberhuber explains that this painting shows the short but important time period in which Raphael interacted with his “consciousness soul”. Oberhuber is referring to the period between the ages of 35 and 42, in which man experiences both the full aspect of his identity and his approach to life. In the painting, Raphael’s experience of this as a positive time is especially visible in the top half of the painting, in the lighting and uplighting qualities. The concept of this soul is explained by Rudolf Steiner: the consciousness soul lives in the head, the sentient soul lives in the limbs, and the rational soul lives in the heart and lungs. Oberhuber applies this to the painting, stating how the demonic boy in the bottom is an example of the sentient soul of Raphael, the apostles around the boy show the rational soul, and the spiritual atmosphere of the upper half point towards Raphael’s consciousness soul. Unfortunately, as Raphael died young, this is one of his only works while in this stage of life.

How does Raphael tell the story? The Transfiguration is considered a crucial event because it provided proof of who Jesus was; Raphael emphasizes this in the way he positions Christ: showing him looking upward toward heaven while rising upwards, in defiance of gravity, in a great whirlwind. Vasari goes into detail in his praise of Christ’s face, saying,

“Clothed in snow-white garments, Christ himself extends his arms and raises his head, and seems to reveal the Essence and Godhead of all three Persons of the Trinity, fused in him by the perfect art of Raphael. And Raphael seems to have summoned up all his powers to demonstrate the strength and genius of his art in Christ's countenance.”

Mosesa and Elijah are caught up on either side of him. The sky and clouds directly around Jesus are blazing with light, so much that the apostles below on the ground are blinded. This light surrounding Jesus draws special attention to him, as the rest of the painting’s atmosphere is far darker, almost ominous. In addition, Raphael emphasizes Jesus’ power by showing the weakness of the disciples: as Jesus rises, the apostles fall downward to huddle on the ground. Partridge writes,

“[The painting] stresses the absolute power of Christ and the dependency of all humankind on the redemptive sacrifice of his crucifixion. Raphael visualizes this sacrifice… by Chirst’s cruciform posture and by the landscape light produced by either a setting or rising sun, ambiguously expressive of either death or renewal (or both).

In saying this, Partridge is not only observing what Raphael is painting but also what the painter believed, which makes it a powerful representation of Raphael’s own faith.

Also notable in the upper half of the painting is the presence of two saints, Justus and Pastor. These two, from the early days of Christianity, are watching the Transfiguration not in the present, like the disciples, but rather through a vision from their prayers. Raphael seems to be drawing our attention to these other spectators by lighting up their cloaks in a ray from Jesus’ own presence. Like ourselves, they also are watching and participating in the blessing of seeing the event, even though they are not physically there.

The lower half of the painting has a different tone. The left shows nine of the twelve disciples, those who did not go with Jesus to the mountaintop. They are struggling to heal the demon-possessed youth. The different disciples can be recognized, especially by those familiar with the Bible:

“Andrew, holding the books of the Law, is Peter's brother, and bears a family resemblance [to him]. Judas, at the extreme left, cannot be mistaken. Matthew looks over the shoulder of Bartholomew, who is pointing to the demoniac, while Thomas-- distinguished by his youthful appearance-- bends over the boy with a look of intense interest.”

The figure kneeling and making known the lack of Christ’s presence by gesturing with his left hand is Simon, while Philip stares at Judas and points in Christ’s direction. The brothers, James and Jude, are together, with Jude looking intently at the boy’s father. The emotion in their faces and gestures is intense: they show frustration, compassion, worry, and even anger at their own helplessness. Some are referencing books for help, while others seem to be pointing the task back to Jesus. The group on the right, the demon-possessed boy and the group with him, have equally strong, but different, emotions. The youth seems to be mid-seizure, and those with him express fearful, skeptical and angry. Although some of the figures’ cloaks are illuminated, the bottom half lacks the glowing light of the upper half. In this way, Raphael has created a perfect contrast that shows at the same time how the scenes are fully separate and fully related. Partridge describes, “In contrast to the circular perfection unity, harmony, luminescence, and transcendence of the upper half, here all is angular, disjunctive, disharmonious, shadowed, and earthbound.” While these two narratives seem fully separated, she adds that the motions and the diagonal gap between the disciples and the demon-possessed boy develop a charge that highlight the motion of Jesus above. This contrast in the piece makes it extraordinarily memorable.

In making the two halves so completely different and choosing two stories that seem completely separate, Raphael is creating a magnificent sense of unity. In The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, it is explained that every good piece of art should have “‘organic unity’”. This means that even while there are two distinctly separate parts to the work, looking at one part should lead to the necessity of the existence of the other parts as well. It is well-explained as “The common life of the whole work.” Simply explained, this common life is the central idea.

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Transforming the Renaissance: A Look at Raphael’s Last Altarpiece. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 21, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/transforming-the-renaissance-a-look-at-raphaels-last-altarpiece/
“Transforming the Renaissance: A Look at Raphael’s Last Altarpiece.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/transforming-the-renaissance-a-look-at-raphaels-last-altarpiece/
Transforming the Renaissance: A Look at Raphael’s Last Altarpiece. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/transforming-the-renaissance-a-look-at-raphaels-last-altarpiece/> [Accessed 21 Jun. 2024].
Transforming the Renaissance: A Look at Raphael’s Last Altarpiece [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2024 Jun 21]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/transforming-the-renaissance-a-look-at-raphaels-last-altarpiece/
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