Essay: Raphael – the great Renaissance painter

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The work of the great Renaissance painter Raphael continues to amaze generations due to its magnificence. Some of his greatest works such as The School of Athens, The Alba Madonna, and Galatea are timeless pieces which use techniques most associated with the High Renaissance era.

Raphael Sanzio was born in the city-state of Urbino, Italy on April 6, 1483. He lived a short but meaningful life, living until 37 and dying on his birthday in the year 1520. His father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter for the Duke of Urbino. Unfortunately, Giovanni passed away when Raphael was only eleven years of age, three years after his mother had passed away. During this brief time with his father, Raphael was able to learn painting techniques from him. In fact, during this time Santi realized that he had taught Raphael all that he could about the arts. When there was nothing left to learn from his father, he became an apprentice to Pietro Perugino.

Pietro noted that he was particularly astonished by the young boys drawing abilities, along with his manners. It was not long until Raphael was able to learn Pietro’s style so well that it became nearly impossible to distinguish the difference between the work of the two. There is some discrepancy as to if Raphael had started this apprenticeship before or after Giovanni’s death, but nonetheless, it was at an incredibly young age. This all eventually lead to Raphael’s first documented work, a commission in December of 1500 in the city of Città di Castello. It was the Saint Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece in the church of Saint Agostino. After his apprenticeship with Pietro, Raphael moved to Florence. While there he created a series of Madonna’s which helped his reputation rapidly take off. These Madonna’s were based off of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Raphael tended to follow trends of Leonardo’s several times throughout his life. In 1508, at around the age of 25, Raphael moved to Rome.

Very quickly after coming to Rome, Raphael became a known painter. He was commissioned in 1508 by Pope Julius II to create a series of frescos in four different rooms on the second floor of the Papal Palace. The rooms took from 1508 until 1524, four years after Raphael’s death, to finish. This was possible by members of Raphael’s workshop. In one of the rooms stands four frescos that represent the four branches of human knowledge: philosophy, theology, poetry, and jurisprudence. The most well-known and celebrated of these frescos is the one pertaining to philosophy, entitled: The School of Athens.

The School of Athens was painted from 1509-1511. What most people first realize is the mass of people standing, laying, and talking on the stairs. Upon closer inspection of the two figures in the middle, is that they are Plato and Aristotle. Although none of the figures are explicitly named, we can determine this because of their faces and also the books they are holding. Plato is holding his book Timaeus and Aristotle is holding his book Ethics. Also the age difference between the two that is depicted is accurate to the two. Although Plato was Aristotle’s mentor, the two have very different philosophies, which is essentially the largest point between the two paintings. Plato was interested in the theoretical, things that could not be seen. This encompasses things such as mathematics and pure ideas. He points upward in the painting to symbolize his interest in things that we cannot see but are all around us. On the opposing view, Aristotle is interested in the actual, the physical, and the observable. His philosophy revolves around what is there. This is exemplified in the painting by him pointing to what is in front of the two, what can be seen. A concept which was also interesting was that of the colors the two are wearing. Plato is wearing purple and red, representing the elements air and fire respectively. These two elements are essentially weightless and cannot be held onto. Aristotle is wearing the colors brown and blue, representing earth and water. These elements can be held and measured. From these two philosophies comes the premise for the rest of the painting. The entire left side of the fresco holds to the philosophy of Plato while the right side conforms to Aristotle’s views. This divide of a painting is seen in Leonardo’s The Last Supper, with all of Jesus’s disciples on either side of him. The philosopher Pythagoras is on the left side of the fresco and appears to be working on a mathematical problems while surrounded by observers. Pythagoras was known for his work on harmony in music and mathematics. This theoretical devotion of work is consistent with Plato’s philosophical views. On the right side of the fresco sits Euclid. Euclid’s work focused on geometry and things that could be measured, relating to Aristotle’s philosophy. Euclid is said to have been painted representatively as Donato Bramante, the architect of St. Peters Basilica, a position that Raphael assumed after his death. Bramante focused on the use of perfect geometry in his architectural design, again, relating to Aristotle’s principles of philosophy. Raphael discreetly paints himself into the piece as well. All the way to the right, Raphael paints himself amongst the astronomers Ptolemy and Zoroaster. This is to be seen as him viewing of himself to be on par as an intellectual with these great thinkers. Lastly, above all of the humans, stands the Greek God Apollo to the left, and Greek Goddess Athena to the right, carved into the marble. Apollo is the Greek God of the sun, music, and poetry, three thing which were incapable of being (at the time) measured. Athena is the Greek Goddess of war and wisdom, two things that are observable and in the humanistic realm. This piece uses the technique most notably used during the High Renaissance era; linear perspective. The illusion of depth is depicted by the use of larger images in the front and smaller images in the rear. Also everything is proportional and the angles of the hallway behind the scene give the illusion of depth. In addition to this, the contrapposto stance is used by Plato and Aristotle, the main focal points of the fresco. The two are in a relaxed position, with weight on one foot and hips slightly rolled out.

The Alba Madonna is a painting by Raphael believed to be painted in 1510. The pictures was painted with oil paints on wood, which was then transferred to canvas. The most noticeable symbol in this entire painting is actually quite subtle. Christ, the Virgin, and John the Baptist are all staring at the cross. This seemingly is actually the premise of the entire painting. This painting is a foreshadowing of the Passion of Christ. In addition to the looks, we can see that Christ is grabbing the cross, seemingly excepting his passion. Also depicted is the Virgin Mary reaching over to comfort both of the young boys. It is also thought that the book in her hand is the Bible and that her finger is marking off the verse of Christ’s passion. In addition to this, the veil that is draped over her arm and lap is the one believed to eventually wrap Christ after his crucifixion. Lastly, Saint John the Baptist has Anemones in his arms, these flowers frequently represent the Resurrection of Christ. This painting uses the technique sfumato in the background, gently blending the landscape so that it has no rough lines or transitions.

The fresco created by Raphael in 1514 in the Villa Farnesina of Rome is known to also be one of his best works. Galatea was commissioned by a wealthy banker in his living area. The Greek myth of the piece begins as Galatea, a sea nymph, frequents the coast of Sicily, where the cyclops Polyphemus falls in love with her. After his attempts of trying to court her fails, she falls in love with a man named Acis. Upon hearing this, Polyphemus crushes Acis under a boulder, ensuing a war. This fresco is an example of the High Renaissance era for its use of the human body. The anatomically correct but also God-like features of the figures. Also the natural feel of the body’s position. The muscles on the creature grabbing the lady on the left-bottom side present a realistic look of a human, not just from a front angle. This is also seen throughout the piece such as in the cupids. Also chiaroscuro is used in Galatea’s figure. Her light body against the dark red cloth seem to draw the eye to her attention. In addition to this the use of seemingly different concepts make the fresco appealing to look at. It is no doubt that this is a chaotic scene, however, in the chaos, there is balance. All of the entities surrounding Galatea, in turn focus the piece onto her.
Raphael is a prime example of the High Renaissance era. His use of linear perspective, sfumato, and chiaroscuro in his work is revolutionary to the world of art. The School of Athens, The Alba Madonna, and Galatea are each vastly different in their own respect and shows Raphael’s versatility as an artist.

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