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December 30, 2004

Raphael at the National Gallery

Posted by Christie Davies

Raphael: From Urbino to Rome
National Gallery, London
20th October 2004 - 16th January 2005
Open Daily 10am - 6pm (Wednesdays until 9pm)

The Raphael exhibition sets out to show the influences on him in his early years in Urbino where his father Giovanni Santi was court artist and in Perugia, his development as he moved to Sienna and Florence and his triumph in Rome working for Pope Julius II. Perhaps for some specialist connoisseurs the selection of his work provided is inadequate or mis-chosen but for ordinary art lovers it is worth visiting to see the large range of Raphael's work that is on display - we can make our own choices. I have only one word of caution for the visitor - do not hire the audiotape. You will find yourself returning it in disgust after five minutes. It sounds like a BBC 'Yartz' radio documentary with musical accompaniment and plummy voices. Dissatisfied customers do not get their money back and it is better to read and look than to have a recorded stranger up your ear.

The works by Giovanni Santi and Pietro Perugino with which the exhibition begins are of interest in their own right as well as for these artists' influence on Raphael. The details of Perugino's work are entrancing, as in his portrait Francesco delle Opere, 1494 of a direct and confident looking man of business whose hands seek to go beyond the frame, a hard man against a soft blue-green landscape of trees and spires or his Apollo and Marsyas, 1490s with its frond-like trees against a sky in which a hawk seizes a bird almost as large as itself.

Raphael's most moving work, as one might expect, relates to the central events of the Christian religion, including the Procession to Calvary, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. It is worth considering them in their actual sequence rather than in the order in which Raphael painted them.

The Procession to Calvary c1502-5 shows Christ looking straight at us calmly but with utter sadness as he bears his heavy cross and is pulled forward by a cord tied to his belt. His mother swoons and a soldier tugs at his arm. Christ is not at the geometric centre of the procession but he alone detaches himself and meets our eyes He is there for us and speaks to us. Likewise it is only His robes and those of His mother that are memorable a subtle way of indicating holiness.

Earlier Raphael had painted the altarpiece The Mond Crucifixion c1503 in which angels fly with vessels to catch the blood from Christ's wounds in his hands and side. Their wings and long belts are strung out across the sky in an intricate, sinuous, symmetrical pattern that fills the gap between the high cross and the mourning Virgin and saints and yet points us always to the central figure of the crucified Christ.

In the Resurrection of Christ 1501-2, now in a museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Christ rises from a rich marble tomb decorated with golden dolphins. The soldiers in a strange mixture of brightly coloured clothing, one indeed in red armour, writhe in astonishment at His Resurrection in contrast to the calm and linear presence of Christ at the centre. In each case Raphael has used design and symmetry to give us complex detailed pictures but ones that point always to the vital central figure of Christ and His passion.

The same skill in placing and contrasting individuals can be seen in the copy after The Borghese Entombment, 1507, in which Christ's body is being carried to the tomb in a sheet. He is carried by two men, one younger and stronger than the other. The man at the head shows not only grief as Christ's head presses against his chest but also physical difficulty; he is in more than one sense heavy-laden. The other who holds the cloth under Christ's knees seems untouched by it all and his strongly muscled bare arm contrasts with the soft blue sleeve of the other who leans back under the weight so that his strain filled face is aligned with that of the dead Christ. Between them the loose haired Mary Magdelene clasps Christ's hand with one hand and seeks for his cheek with her other. It is another masterpiece of composition, a large picture full of detail that always draws the viewer back to its central event and person.

By contrast many of Raphael's studies of the Virgin and Child have an unreal sweetness about them, Ira Sankey in paint. For all I know, they have him singing on that dreadful audio tape; it would have been more relevant to the mood if not the times of these paintings than boring us with period music. The sweetness is even more obtrusive in Saint Sebastian, 1502-3. An effeminate, beardless Sebastian with arched plucked eyebrows and a tiny rosebud mouth holds his arrow. It tells us a lot about those who have a particular devotion to this saint. Better to turn to Saint Catherine of Alexandria c1507-8 as she turns to God.

There is nothing sweet about the Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511. Raphael's portrait is said to be so lifelike that when displayed after the Pope's death it "struck fear into those who saw it". The red robes and hat of his power stand out against the bright green hangings of his apartment patterned with cross-keys. No entry without Julius' permission. Here is Julius II, a real man's pope, a man of temporal power, a soldier who led his own Papal army against Perugia and helped drive the hated French invader out of Italy. We may contrast Julius' portrait with the Portrait of La Velata 1512-13 who is clad in soft gold and white except for two small deep black bows, blacker even than her hair. She is veiled but the veil is set back revealing her hair. Like Julius she is a vivid particular individual known to Raphael. Raphael had come to Rome, a worldly place. As you leave, forgive and think kindly of Johann Tetzel who helped raise the money to pay for this part of Raphael's career.

To read Prof. Davies take on 100 contemporary artists' take on God see: Nearly 100 Artists Fail to See God at the ICA.

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