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Artist Spotlight: Raphael

This week marks the 500th anniversary of Raphael's death. He died on his 37th birthday, April 6, 1520. His use of bright colors, naturalized forms, and clean composition make him one of the three "big names" of the Italian Renaissance. In honor of this day, Raphael is going to be our next feature in our artist spotlight series. 

Raffaello Sanzio was born in the small, central Italian, city of Urbino in 1483. His father, Giovanni, was the resident court artist to the Duke of Urbino. He was both a poet and a painter, so it was likely that Raphael's first lessons came from him. After the death of his father when Raphael was 11, he learned from other central Italian artists. His talent was clear and by 1508, Pope Julius II invited him to work at the Papal Court in Rome. 

By creating a large workshop, Raphael was able to churn out a remarkable number of works. His work was in high demand and he quickly gained fame in the eternal city. But, his career was cut short when he died young. Some reports say that it was due to exhaustion from a night of too much love-making, while others indicate that he had been sick for about two weeks prior. Regardless, the city was devastated by his passing. Raphael was buried in the Pantheon, the highest honor Rome could bestow upon him. 


The School of Athens

In 1509, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes

in the Apostolic apartments. The theme of the works is the pillars of scholarship. The School of Athens represents philosophy and shows a multitude of famous thinkers throughout classical history. Aristotle and Plato stand front and center, showing how pivotal they were to the development of Western development. 

If the viewer looks closely, they will see that Raphael used many of his contemporaries as models for the ancient philosophers.  For example, the architect Bramante is shown as the mathematician Euclid. This fresco shows off the perfection that Renaissance artists attempted to achieve. We see a clear vanishing point directly above Plato and Aristotle, all the lines connect there. The clear structure helps enforce classical ideals. 

The Transfiguration

Raphael's Transfiguration is often considered his greatest work. It was painted between 1516-1520, the artist finished it shortly before he died. Although it is in the Vatican Museums today, it was originally commissioned by Pope Clement VII as an altarpiece for a French cathedral.  The painting shows the moment in the New Testament where God formally claims Jesus as His son. Jesus, Peter, James, and John go to a mountain to pray. Once they are there, the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah appeared and the Voice of God rang out. It is a pivotal moment in the Gospels. 

Unusually for a Transfiguration painting, there is a second scene added. Below the mountain, there is a scene of a boy being possessed by a demon. The crowd is in shock, and a few people try to help, including some of Jesus' disciples. However, they couldn't break the demon's hold and had to wait for Jesus to return. Raphael included this scene to show that Jesus was needed for everything in life and was God's power on earth. 

The Triumph of Galatea

In Greek mythology, Galatea was a Nereid (a type of sea nymph) who was married to the one eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus. However, she fell in love with a handsome shepherd named Acis. The two became lovers, until her husband found out. Filled with a jealous rage, Polyphemus killed Acis. Galatea was devastated and used her powers to turn him into an immortal river spirit. Raphael painted her triumphal apotheosis as a fresco in the home of Agostino Chigi, one of the richest men in Rome. This work, created around 1514, is not the usual depiction of Galatea, but it is stunning nonetheless. 

In this fresco, viewers see the Nereid riding on a pair of dolphins, surrounded by other nymphs. The colors are vibrant, Raphael was inspired by ancient Roman frescoes. The figure of Galatea is considered to be a great beauty. At the time, people speculated that she was inspired by Chigi's mistress. However, letters survive that show that Raphael imagined the figure, wanting to make her the ideal of beauty. 


When one thinks of the High Renaissance, Raphael immediately comes to mind. His use of color, naturalism, and clean composition made him beloved, both in his time and in the future. From religious works to Greek mythology, Raphael was able to capture it all effortlessly.

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