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Classical Raphael

Raphael was one of the grandest portraitists of all time, whose pictures illustrated the humanistic principles of Western civilization.

about 1507
Raphael's Saint Catherine of Alexandria, circa 1507. (National Gallery, London/Wikimedia Commons)

Raphael Santi (1483–1520), along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, is one of the three artistic titans of the Italian High Renaissance. Yet unlike the other two, he hasn’t gotten the widespread admiration in the United States that he deserves. In part, that is because he has never been the subject of bestselling novels or Hollywood epics. More importantly, his most remarkable works, like The School of Athens, are frescoed on the walls of the Vatican or hanging in European museums and rarely loaned. Even in England, where many of his drawings and paintings reside, there have been few exhibits and, until now, none covering his entire career. For its Raphael show (closing July 31), London’s National Gallery has successfully secured loans of Raphael’s paintings, drawings, prints, tapestries, sculptures, and architectural models from all over Europe.

Raphael was born into a family of artists in the small but culturally rich duchy of Urbino in the province of Umbria. The youngster possessed a fine talent for drawing, as we see in a black chalk self-portrait at age 15–16. The keen-eyed youth, directly and intimately meeting our gaze, makes for an intriguing portrayal of artistic ambition and aspiration. The first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, tells us that the court where Raphael’s father was the official painter helped shape and polish the boy’s sweet and pleasant character. His charm, talent, and intellect would later win him the favor of the most powerful men in Rome, including the two popes, Julius II and Leo X, and the richest man in Italy, the banker Agostino Chigi.


Around 1500, Raphael apprenticed with Perugino, the most successful artist in Umbria. Raphael’s first surviving altarpiece, Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints, and Angels, owes its clarity and symmetry and its figures’ sweet and devout expressions to the older artist’s style. Raphael was so good at imitation that if he hadn’t signed the altarpiece, it would have been taken to be his mentor’s. Despite the subject matter, the altarpiece depicts a world more serene and harmonious than our own. Serenity and harmony were to remain Raphael’s ideals throughout his career.

A tiny painting in the first room, easily overlooked, provides the key to understanding Raphael's future development. An Allegory shows a young knight asleep on the ground in front of a laurel tree with a female figure on either side. Being an allegory, the women are personifications of ideas. Virtue, modestly dressed, is on the left holding a book and a sword; on the right is Pleasure (or Vice), more fetchingly attired, holding a flowering twig, a symbol of earthly delights. 

An ancient tale behind the picture, first narrated by the philosopher Socrates in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, concerns a young hero’s choice between two ways of life. Pleasure tempts him to avoid danger and seek the easy life, but Virtue warns that such a life is unworthy of a man who wants to win honor and glory. One must take the high road of diligence, work tirelessly at noble endeavors, and measure oneself against the worthiest opponents to achieve greatness. Raphael identified with the knight’s goal. 

An irresistible ambition drew Raphael to Florence in 1504, the most artistically advanced city in Italy, to learn from the revolutionary works of Leonardo and Michelangelo. From the Mona Lisa and other Leonardo portraits, he learned how to suggest the sitter’s interior life, as in the quiet reserve and mystery of the woman in La Muta (The Silent One). In Catherine of Alexandria, the martyr-saint gazes rapturously upward toward Heaven before her execution. Her beautifully curving contrapposto is derived from Leonardo's Leda. The monumentality of the saint’s physical presence recalls Michelangelo’s unfinished marble Saint Matthew. That Raphael was able to absorb and combine Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s vastly different sensibilities and ideas is a tribute to his abilities and confidence.

The Virgin and Child are the most common subjects of religious art in the Renaissance, and Raphael’s depictions are undoubtedly among the most excellent. Vasari suggests that their profound emotional resonance derives from Raphael’s early upbringing. Raphael’s father refused to follow custom by sending the infant to a lower-class wet nurse and kept him home so his mother could breastfeed him. Though his beloved mother died when he was 8, Raphael carried deep filial emotions in his heart all his adult life.


By 1508, the 25-year-old Raphael moved to Rome. His relative, the papal architect Donato Bramante, brought Raphael to the attention of Pope Julius. Raphael’s first job was to fresco the Pope’s private library room, the Stanza Della Segnatura. His most famous wall painting, School of Athens, is reproduced in a full-scale copy for the show. It depicts ancient philosophers, natural scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers led by Plato and Aristotle engaged in intellectual conversation, debate, and collaboration. The other frescoes in the room represent the fields of theology, poetry, and law. Reason and Revelation support each other and work in harmony in the ensemble. For centuries, these pictures illustrated the humanistic principles of Western civilization. 

Raphael was one of the grandest portraitists of all time, a skill he brought to paintings of his patrons, friends, and lovers. His image of Julius II is remarkably humble for a man known as the “warrior pope,” recording the frailty of Julius’s final years. In The Book of the Courtier, the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione explains how to conduct oneself with elegance and grace. Raphael depicts him with an unassuming air and impeccable dress. In the Self Portrait with Giulio Romano, the master, with his hand on his assistant’s shoulder, seems to be hinting that he is ready to pass the torch. Finally, there are two striking portraits of women who may have been the painter’s lovers: an intimately suggestive nude La Fornarina (Baker’s Daughter) and a gorgeously costumed La Donna Velata (Woman with the Veil). The former evokes desire, especially as she wears an armband inscribed with the painter’s name; the latter with its splendid decorum, evokes respectful love. Vasari tells us that Raphael died from “a surfeit of love.”

For those unable to go to London, there is an excellent catalog of the exhibition by art historians Tom Henry and David Ekserdjian.


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