“Saint John the Baptist Preaching”, Raphael, 1505
Artillery Row On Art

Sex and Sanctity

There are wonders great and small in the Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery

In my final year as an undergraduate I occupied a tiny garret room with a dormer window at the top of a rickety staircase. Being determined to establish my credentials as an aesthete, I introduced a coffee machine, a couple of decanters, and as many small bits of college crockery as I could manage to sneak out of dinner under a gown. I knew also that there needed to be art, but the only spare wall was the underside of the sloping roof. In a flash of inspiration I covered it with vintage postcards of famous paintings, which I acquired on eBay.

It all seems a very long time ago. The sole surviving postcard now sits in a frame on the bedside table in my spare room: an altarpiece of the Virgin & Child on a throne, flanked by St Nicholas and St John the Baptist. I had almost entirely forgotten about it until I came face-to-face with the original in The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael at the National Gallery. It is the Ansidei Madonna, from the museum’s own collection, and in the split-second of recognition two realisations suddenly caught me off guard. First (ludicrously, I grant you), that it is so big; secondly, that it looks so real.

It is realism that shouts to the rafters from this labyrinthine show, the walls of which — as they did for the recent Dürer exhibition — the National Gallery has painted in solid blocks of colour to better bring out some of the finer details in the frames.

Raphael clung to his Catholicism like a randy limpet

Raphael was only 37 when he died of a combination of sex-exhaustion and medical quackery, but in twenty short and prodigious years he straddled the end of the medieval period and the tentative ushering-in of the baroque. His young pieces are vibrant and dynamic; brighter and sharper than Leonardo, on whose Giaconda he clearly based his own Study for a Portrait of a Young Woman (c.1505), which is also now in the care of the Louvre. His later portraits show the first stirrings of the fleshiness that found its voluptuous apogee in Rubens a century later, although there are precocious hints of it in The Three Graces (c.1504), from the Musée Condé at Chantilly.

The Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari (“The Ansidei Madonna”), Raphael, 1505

Raphael’s success stemmed from a rare combination of qualities that artists have not always possessed in spades: he was clearly talented, efficient, and easy to work with. His ability to collaborate with others ensured that his portfolio was diverse; also here are some of his less-well known contributions to architecture, metalwork, and illustration. These sit alongside his paintings, which, thanks to mass-production, are the things by which the world knows him best. They speak of grandeur and impression; they certainly are very grand, and very impressive, but it is in the paintings that his greatest skill shines through: his effortless combination of majesty with tendresse.

The greater portion of the works is, inevitably, religious; that said, there is no cloying sentiment to be found. Each picture speaks to the soul, and it is obvious that, notwithstanding the apparently ubiquitous horizontal jogging, Raphael clung to his Catholicism like a randy limpet. The piety of his youth is represented by St Sebastian (c.1501), from the Accademia Carrara at Bergamo. It was painted while he was still a teenager; the martyr appears fully clothed and holding his arrow. A curatorial note earnestly intones that he appears to be “notably contemplative and serene”, which is to say that there is not a whiff of the homoeroticism — explicit or projected — that lingers around others’ treatments of the same subject.

Even in Raphael’s secular early paintings religious motifs never seem very far away. All that Vision of a Knight (c.1504), also from the National Gallery, needs to turn it into a crucifixion scene is for the tree in the middle to be worked into a cross, and Christ’s body added. The figures on either side could easily be tweaked into Our Lady and St John, and the sleeping subject reworked into a prone Mary Magdalene. His later secular paintings are very different; La Donna Velata (c.1514), from the Uffizi, oozes sensuality from the respectability of her garments and her associated inaccessibility. La Fornarina (c.1520), from the Arte Antica at Rome, is much more straightforward; she has both her breasts out and seems to be in the process of fingering a nipple. She sports an elegant band around her upper arm, as a royal lady might wear the Garter; upon it Raphael has painted his name.

Raphael found a figurative way of prising heaven open with his art

“Set me […] as a seal upon thine arm”, sings the writer of the Song of Songs. This, then, is Raphael: all that sex, and all that sanctity. His unbridled vigour marches out of the huge items on display, such as the enormous tapestry of St Paul Preaching at Athens, commissioned in 1513 by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel, and on loan from the Vatican Museums. His capacity for intimacy shines out of the smaller pieces like The Madonna of the Pinks (c.1507), which was saved for the nation in 2004. Meanwhile, his faith maybe finds its deepest and most powerful expression in the large tonde — roundels — on display, with their devastating effect of profound theology presented both in the form of art and within a perfect circle.

True, the Church was a great patron of the arts, but there is more than just financial transaction here in oil, canvas, and wood; here too we see the life’s offering of a conflicted genius who was one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Raphael has a new patron now; one of his later self-portraits gazes out of the exhibition catalogue, opposite a foreword from David Mathers, the CEO of Credit Suisse. With his piercing eyes, tanned skin, long dark hair, and full beard, our eponymous hero seems to appear as an almost Jesus-like figure.

Raphael, too, died young — on Good Friday 1520; his body rested before its burial in front of his final work, the monumental Transfiguration that he had begun the previous year. As the curators note, in that last painting, as in so many others, “Raphael erases the distinction between sight and vision, body and spirit, profane and sacred […] a reminder that truth is transcendent because [it is] spiritual.” While the promises of Easter are Christ’s and his alone, his flawed servant Raphael found a figurative way of prising heaven open with his art.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Raphael is at the National Gallery until 31 July.

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