The Artist Raphael

History is rich with rivalries. Modern scholars have remarked about a legendary rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael as the favorites of Pope Julius II. It was Michelangelo who was chosen for the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It is also said that Raphael paid homage to Michelangelo after secretly viewing his rival’s work on the Sistine Chapel by including Michelangelo’s portrait in the School of Athens (c. 1510-1511).

Raphael was chosen for other important works for popes and wealthy art patrons. Born in 1483 in Urbino, Raffaello Santi (or Sanzio) was quickly elevated to greatness like Leonardo da Vinci. After receiving early instruction from his father, the painter Giovanni Santi, Rafael continued the family tradition. One of his earliest works was the Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints, and Angels (c. 1502-1503), now in the National Gallery of London. This work is noted for beautiful symmetry (with the Cross at the center) and medieval elements (the human faces of the sun and the moon on either side of the Cross’s highest point).

In his short life, Raphael spent years in Umbria and Florence and an important period in Rome working for two popes. Under Pope Julius II, several important works were completed in the Vatican, including his own private library in the Apostolic Palace. Julius’ library includes two surviving frescoes by Raphael—Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (c.1508-1509) and School of Athens. These works show two key aspects of the Renaissance. In Disputation, Raphael portrays the important body of the Catholic Church in Heaven and on Earth.

On the opposite wall, the School of Athens includes the giants of philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, in a traditional Greek setting. This fresco also depicts the Renaissance humanist fascination with Classical philosophy, including the principles of truth and reason and the Pope’s library themes of poetry, law, philosophy, and theology. When Julius died, he was followed by Pope Leo X, who changed the purpose of the private library to a study where he could officially sign papal documents. The study was then referred to as the Stanza della Segnatura.

Art historians have noted that Renaissance Italians viewed Classical teachings as harmonious with Catholic theology. The popes were an important source of the Renaissance artist’s income. In 1511, Raphael captured Julius II as an old man with an adopted Roman beard. Later in 1518-1519, the artist painted Leo X with two cardinals. The pose in the latter portrait (three-quarter length and three-quarter face) and the brilliant papal vestments in scarlet were reproduced by the younger Renaissance painter, Titian, in Pope Paul III.

Raphael left other artistic works to posterity, including the tapestry of St. Paul Preaching in Athens (c. 1515). He died on his 37th birthday in 1520.