21 October, 2018

Raphael - The Height of The High Renaissance?

Raphael (1483-1520) was an Italian painter, born in Urbino, during the High Renaissance period. Renowned for his clarity, grace and refinement, he was able to convey beauty and perfection to an exceptional standard.

Born to a court painter, Raphael was taught the arts and also social skills which proved to be crucial. His ability to navigate the higher courts enabled him to secure work and also strike a friendship with Pope Julius II.

It was this relationship that had a lasting impact on Raphael because he was tasked with decorating the famous Stanza Della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace. Who was this young master painter?

A Brief History of Raphael

The untimely death of his Mother and Father (3 years apart) compelled an 11-year old Raphael to manage his father's workshop and refine his craft. Surpassing his father and becoming one of the best painters in his town, Raphael attracted the attention of Perugino who took Raphael under his stewardship. 

After becoming an independent master, around 1501, Raphael developed a reputation and obtained valuable commissions such as the Mond de Crucifixion (1503).

Raphael's career soon took him to Florence and finally Rome, the burgeoning centres of the High Renaissance. The art here is still revered to this day with iconic pieces such as the Sistine Chapel, Mona Lisa, School of Athens and more attract millions of people a year.

Raphel joined the ranks of esteemed artists such as Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci through mastering the techniques used in High Renaissance such as sfumato, human figures, expression and emotion.

He married these traits with his own style which made him renowned for clarity and composition. 


Around 1504, Raphael lived in Florence - home to other master artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Raphael was heavily inspired by the people in his life. His earlier works had elements of his former teacher, Perugino.

He had an uncanny ability to learn from other artists and use this knowledge to form his own style. It was this natural ability - or perceived derivative attempt of art, that caused Michaelangelo to call Raphael a plagiarist. As you'd expect, those two often had their run-ins!

In Raphael's works, you'll see elements of other artists such as Massacio, Da Vinci, Bartolommeo, Michaelangelo and Bramante.


In 1508, the court of Pope Julius II asked Raphael to redecorate various parts of the Vatican Palace. This occurred at the same time Michaelangelo was completing The Sistine Chapel.

Although The Sistine Chapel overshadowed a lot of the art in the Palace, Raphael still completed notable paintings which are lauded as some of the finest of European Art. For example, The School of Athens and various Madonnas.

In addition to his artworks, Raphael was also an architect who, after the death of Bramante, became the architect responsible for St Peter's in 1514.

Now that you know about Raphael, here are some of his most famous works.

Famous Paintings by Raphael

Along with paintings, he also designed tapestries too! Here's a look at some of the paintings which made Raphael a master artist of the High Renaissance era.

School of Athens (1509-1511) 

This painting can be considered Raphael's finest Fresco painting. The School of Athens portrays major figures from wisdom, knowledge, philosophy and science. They are all sharing (but probably arguing) their ideas and learning from each other.

Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, Socrates and Euclid are included but Plato and Aristotle are the central figures. It's the latter whose philosophies influenced Christianity. 

Sistine Madonna (1513-1514)

There are two things you need to know before we delve into this painting:

  • A Madonna, in Christian Art, depicts Virgin Mary. 
  • The Sistine Madonna takes its name from San Sisto in Piacenza. 

So, the Madonna is holding baby Jesus as she floats on clouds. She is joined by St Sixtux, St Barbara and two Angel cherubs who are gazing in contemplation. 

The expression by the Madonna and Baby Jesus is of fear. Why? St Sixtus is pointing out to something.

When you consider the intended location of the painting (behind a choir screen which isn't there), it would have pointed to a crucifix - so Jesus and the Madonna would have seen his death and his mother would have seen how he would be treated. 

Trivia - King Augustus III of Saxony purchased it in 1754 for his collection in Dresden, Germany.

Mond Crucifixion (1502-1503)

An early work by Raphael with elements of Perugino. Originally an altarpiece in the church of San Domenico, The painting depicts Jesus, on the cross, looking on whilst dying.

If you look closely, there are two angels who are catching his blood with chalices.

Beneath Jesus are: Mary Magdalene,  St. Jerome, John the Evangelista and Mary the Virgin.

Trivia - Ludwig Mond gave the painting to the National Gallery.

Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (1508-1511)

This painting depicts Christianity's victory of many of the philosophical tendencies you saw in the School of Athens. 

Raphael has depicted heaven and earth in this painting with numerous figures:

  • In the centre, you can see that Christ is with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
  • Located near Jesus are Adam, Moses, and other figures.
  • God is at the top and reigns over heaven's golden light. 
  • Below Christ's feet is the Holy Spirit.

Raphael achieved a sublime clarity and simplicity which we still awe at to this day. You can find this fresco opposite the School of Athens in the Stanza Della Segnatura.

The Parnassus (1510-1511)

One of four frescos by Raphael, it resides on one of the interior walls of the Stanza Della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) in the Vatican Palace and was commissioned by Pope Julius II.

Parnassus is actually a mountain and, according to ancient Greek myth, was the mountain where the Muses and poets met and Apollo had his seat. Apollo was associated with music, truth, poetry and fine art and sat on the slopes of the mountain playing a lira da braccio - a renaissance instrument.

Trivia - Historians have only identified 12/18 poets.

Final Words

Despite living for only 37 years, Raphael has been one of the major talking points of High Renaissance art. His funeral was attended by thousands and he was buried in the Rome's Pantheon next to Maria Bibbiena. His tomb had a thought-provoking inscription:

"Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die." - Pietro Bembo

Even though he is ranked among Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, there is something each of them have which sets them apart and makes us appreciate them even more. 

With Raphael, his ability to achieve clarity and depth, unique to a few, just illustrates his credentials as a member of the Holy Trinity of The High Renaissance. 

The Stanza Della Segnatura is located in the Palace of The Vatican. If you want to view artworks considered the pinnacle of the High Rennaissance and some of Raphael's greatest work then do visit. 

Until then, there are a wealth of stories on The Journal which you read by hitting the button below!

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Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael
Artist Spotlight: Raphael