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Raphael Paintings

During the Italian High Renaissance, the world saw many great artists. The three giants of the period are considered to be Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci. The High Renaissance began with the end of the Early Renaissance in Florence. This was largely a result of the teachings of the monk Fra Girolamo Savonarola, who considered contemporary art to be immoral and so instilled a religious zeal in the commoners of Florence which scared most of the artists away to Rome. There, artists found security and many wealthy nobles looking to commission their talents, and so Rome became the new center of the Italian High Renaissance.

Ironically, Florence still remained a center of the study of art, and many High Renaissance painters were either trained there or drew influence from the Florentine style.

When Raphael emerged from his training, he had already surpassed his master in skill. His paintings are almost perfect in coloring and composition, and his figures have excellent proportion and expression. Most of his works are either traditional paintings or frescoes, but he also drew quite a bit and dabbled in architecture and even printmaking with the help of Marcantonio Raimondi.

Oil paint had just been introduced to Italy within the past century and was gaining popularity over the older medium of tempera, made of pigment mixed with a binding agent like egg yolk. Raphael was able to use the new oil paints often with wonderful results, while using tempera on only a handful of works.

The School of Athens

In around 1508, Raphael moved to Rome, where he remained until his death in 1520. He had been summoned by Pope Julius II to paint four frescoes in the Pope’s new private library. This was the first of his famous “Stanze.” The Stanza della Segnatura consisted of four frescoes with the themes of Philosophy, Poetry, Theology, and Law. The School of Athens, which Raphael painted sometime between 1509 and 1512, was the fresco symbolizing Philosophy. In it, about 20 of the figures have been identified, either through historical descriptions and busts or through some sort of icon associated with that person. Although some of the figures are simply anonymous “extras” or unidentified, and on some scholars disagree who the figure is, certain ones, such as Plato and Aristotle, who are walking into the room together at the center of the painting, are undisputed. Other figures intentionally double both as ancient philosophers and as contemporaries of Raphael, such as Plato resembling Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael even drew himself into the painting, on the far right side, staring back at the viewer from behind the two figures holding spheres. Other people identified in the painting include Epicurus, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great (or Alcibiades), Socrates, Michelangelo doubling as Heraclitus, Euclid (or Archimedes), and Ptolemy.

The Transfiguration

During the last few years of his life, specifically from 1516 to 1520, Raphael spent his time working on this altarpiece commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici of the famous Medici family, who would later become Pope Clement VII. When he was originally assigned to this painting, Raphael had many other projects going on, including further work on the “Stanze”, however the Cardinal encouraged him to work by commissioning Sebastiano del Piombo to paint a second altarpiece, titled The Raising of Lazarus. When Raphael died unexpectedly in 1520, The Transfiguration was not yet finished. It is believed that his students Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni completed it for him shortly after his death. Once it was finished, the Cardinal had it donated to the church of San Pietro in Montorio, instead of sending it to the cathedral of San Giusto of Narbonne, France, as was originally intended. However, in 1797, French troops led by Napoleon took it to Paris under the Treaty of Tolentino, where it stayed until it was returned to the Vatican in 1816 after the fall of Napoleon. The work itself depicts Christ flanked by the prophets Moses and Elijah, while in the foreground the Apostles meet the possessed boy who will later be cured by the recently-transfigured Christ. It is described in Raphael’s biography, written by Giorgio Vasari, as “the most famous, the most beautiful and most divine” work of Raphael.


Over the course of Raphael’s life, he painted dozens of Madonnas. These Madonnas are so extraordinary and famous that they have been copied by many artists over the centuries. His Madonna di Loreto, for instance, has around 120 known copies. His Madonnas are especially renowned for the intimacy he portrays between the mother and child. The style Raphael used on his Madonnas is mostly unique compared to other artists. One exception is that he occasionally adopted the pyramidal structure which Leonardo da Vinci used when painting the holy family, such as in The Canigiani Madonna, but he still gave it his own touch of grace independent of da Vinci’s influence.