Revisiting Raphael

Raphael Sanzio, The Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary, Saints and Angels, about 1502-3, National Gallery, London.

Happy Easter! And greetings from Vienna! I’m here with a group, and actually wrote this paragraph in London on Easter Monday: I’m sure I’ll have to do a bit of preparation before I go. However, the blog below was written on Good Friday two years ago – it was Day 23 of Picture Of The Day during lockdown. It seems apt to re-post it now, though, as the painting in question, Raphael’s Mond Crucifixion (named after the family who bequeathed it to the National Gallery), is the very first thing you see on the way into the truly beautiful Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery. You see it even before you get through the doors, as it happens. I will ‘introduce’ the exhibition in two talks. The first is on Monday 25 April at 6pm (and don’t worry, I get back from Vienna on Sunday evening), and the second will be a week later. I’ll need two talks, partly because there are so many wonderful paintings and drawings to see, but also because this is the first exhibition in the UK to cover all aspects of Raphael’s multi-faceted production. Obviously, he was a painter, and, as a result, he also drew. On the whole, people know that he also designed tapestries. But did you know he designed mosaics? And sculptures? Or that he was also an architect? Or, most surprisingly (to me at least) an archaeologist? But more of that over the next two weeks! Let’s look back to Good Friday two years ago.

Of course, every year, the name of the day on which Jesus was crucified prompts the question, ‘Why is that Good’? Well, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of ‘guode friday’ was in 1290, and the word ‘guode’ is used in reference to ‘a day (or season) observed as holy by the Church’ – and we all like holy days – or rather, holidays. They are really good, even if this year [remember we were in lockdown!] the long Bank Holiday weekend will be spent at home. So now you know, don’t ask again next year.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3 © The National Gallery, London.

It is of course the day on which Christians remember the Crucifixion of Jesus – making the choice of subject matter for today’s Picture Of The Day obvious. But why Raphael? Well, I missed it on Monday, but that day marked 537 years since he was born – or, more significantly, 500 years since he died. Like Shakespeare he had the good sense to die on his birthday, thus cutting down the number of dates we’d have to remember and making him look More Significant. ‘Why don’t you just say Anniversary?’ you ask. Well, it isn’t the same day. In the 16th Century, everyone in Europe was using the Julian Calendar. The Gregorian Calendar was instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, but Britain didn’t fall into line until 1752 (after all, it was clearly a Popish plot) when we ‘lost’ 11 days. By now the Julian Calendar is 13 days behind the Gregorian Calendar, apparently… so… oh it really doesn’t matter.

Back to the painting, which is a brilliant example of Raphael’s early style. As an artist he was a sponge – anything that he saw and liked he absorbed, assimilated and regurgitated, and here he is giving us his Perugino. Born in Urbino, the son of court artist Giovanni Santi, Raphael was initially trained by his father. He was then apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, and his early works are almost indistinguishable from that of his master – compare the second image. This is Perugino’s Archangel Raphael with Tobias painted around 3 or 4 years before Raphael’s Crucifixion – if you want to know the story, see Picture Of The Day 4 – Tobias and the Angel

If you compare the paintings, the standing figures in both have one foot firmly planted on the ground, with the heel of the other slightly lifted, making the knee on that side bend – a position known as ‘contrapposto’. The head is tilted to one side. The articulation of the angel’s fingers, especially the delicate curve of the thumbs, and exaggerated separation of the little fingers, is very similar to those of St Jerome, the figure kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion. The overall effect is feminine – or effeminate – and slightly fay. The landscapes are – or were – also similar, but you can’t really see that as the Perugino has been cut down, also losing Tobias’ and Raphael’s elbows, and most of the dog. It’s what is called an Umbrian bowl landscape – seen in Umbrian paintings, rather than in Umbria itself. On the left and right the horizon is higher, and more or less horizontal, dipping down to a lower central section, thus looking like a bowl. The distance is blue, the middle ground green and the foreground brown – an early example of atmospheric perspective (the effect that the atmosphere has on the way we see things as they get further away). This colour scheme is formulaic: if you were standing on green grass it wouldn’t look brown. Notice, in the Crucifixion, that they are also standing on a hill. Yes, that does have a narrative function, ‘There is a green hill far away’, after all (even if it is brown here), but it is also a way of coping with the progression from foreground via middle ground to background. It cuts out the transition between the first two stages, and brings the characters further forward. Raphael isn’t the only artist to do this.

Raphael, The Mond Crucifixion, about 1502-3 © The National Gallery, London.

The more astute among you will have noticed that I said that the man kneeling on the left of the Crucifixion is St Jerome. And the most astute will also have realised that St Jerome was not present at the Crucifixion, living, as he did, from 347-420 AD.  The other three were, according to the bible. Standing on the left is the Virgin Mary, and on the right, John the Evangelist. We know that, because the gospels mention them standing at the foot of the cross: this is the point at which Jesus, from the cross, commended them to each other’s care. Also, they wear their traditional colours, Mary in a blue cloak over a red robe, and John in red and green (his colour scheme is not so fixed as it is for other saints). Kneeling on the right is Mary Magdalene, who is also mentioned as present in the Bible. I’m glad she’s there, as she is a useful antidote to those who would rather believe bad fiction than standard Christian theology and art history. Mary Magdalene was not present at the Last Supper, and has never been depicted as being there. Yes, John looks very girly – with long flowing hair, and a smooth, beardless face, but that’s how the young Raphael depicted young men – as, of course, did everyone else, including Leonardo. Any self-respecting woman would have her hair covered, or at least dressed, and the Magdalene does indeed have ribbons in her hair. I know, you could argue she was not a self-respecting woman, but by the time she was kneeling at the foot of the cross, she was, having repented of her sinful ways. This is why she is paired with St Jerome. They are the two leading saints associated with the act of penance. Mary is repenting her sinful ways as a prostitute (there is no biblical evidence for that, by the way, but that is another story), whereas St Jerome is lamenting the fact that he had read so much classical literature. Not an ideal saint for the Renaissance, you might think, but renaissance scholars were adept at sidestepping minor inconveniences like this. According to his story, he retired to the wilderness as an act of penance for the folly of his youth, beating his chest with a stone and contemplating Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.  This painting was commissioned for an altar dedicated to St Jerome – so he is there by necessity. As a result, you could argue that the Crucifixion is really there because of him, in this case, rather than the other way around.

What we are seeing is an elision of two separate things. The Maries and John are physically present at the Crucifixion, whereas St Jerome is contemplating a Crucifix. Another way of looking at it is that everything in the painting, with the exception of St Jerome himself, is one big thought bubble: the Crucifixion, the Virgin, St. John, and Mary Magdalene are all part of Jerome’s contemplation. This goes to show that however realistic a painting might look, the visual elements are predominantly symbolic. And indeed, the more you look at it, the more you realise that the art is in the artifice. The figures are perfectly balanced – if not exactly symmetrical – from one side to the other. With the inner figures kneeling, the four heads take on a similar profile to the horizon, with those of the Virgin and John standing clear against the sky, and those of the kneeling figures seen against the rolling hills lower down. The colours of their clothes tie them together as well, with the Virgin’s dress, Jerome’s belt, and John’s cloak being the same shade of red. Exactly the same shade of red is used for Jesus’ loincloth, which, if you haven’t noticed it already, is remarkable.

Have you ever seen Jesus in anything other than a white loincloth? It is one of the features of this painting that suggests it was commissioned to replace a far older image, as the only other examples I know were painted in the 13th Century. The third image is a Crucifix by Cimabue in Arezzo, and is dated to around 1270. The colour is associated with Royalty, and goes back to the Byzantine tradition, when the Emperors wore purple – which is often shown as red. It is also, of course, associated with the blood that you can see in the Cimabue flowing from the wounds in Christ’s hands and feet. In Raphael’s version the angels gather Christ’s blood in chalices. This is the Holy Blood, which was the subject of yesterday’s image (POTD 22).

Notice how, in Raphael’s painting, the angels are flying in the same plane as Jesus. No, I know what you’re thinking: they are on the same spatial plane – the picture plane – and their ribbons fly out parallel to the picture surface as well, as does one end of Christ’s loincloth. Raphael is using them to pattern the surface of the painting – they do not move in depth at all – and, as ever, this placing of things parallel to the picture plane makes them look more iconic, taking them out of the reality of this world. In the real world, we move in and out of space. Likewise, and most otherworldly, we see the sun and the moon in the sky, on either side of the Cross, depicted with gold and silver leaf respectively. This is another feature of archaic images of the Crucifixion, and can be interpreted in several ways – all of which are valid. It probably derives from the biblical passage which states that the sky darkened when Christ died – we have night during the day, and see both heavenly bodies at the same time. But it is also prodigious – the two shouldn’t be seen so close together – and so it forebodes ill. In some cases they mark God’s anger at the death of his son. They also came to symbolise the Old and New testaments – St Augustine, a contemporary of St Jerome, promoted that interpretation.

In between the Sun and Moon we see the titulus, or ‘title’, which Pontius Pilate attached to the cross, saying ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Sometimes, but only rarely, artists include the full inscription in all three languages. More often, as here, they only include the abbreviation I.N.R.I., which comes from the Latin inscription: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum.

Raphael has produced a static, almost timeless image. However relevant to today, this lasts for all time, night and day. The angels gather the precious blood – too precious, indeed, to allow it to fall to the ground. The Virgin and St John stand witness with long-suffering devotion while Jerome and Mary Magdalene look on in humble, penitent adoration. The symmetry of the composition, its order and balance, are given strength by a pyramidal composition. The figures of Christ, Jerome and the Magdalene define a triangle – and no normal triangle at that. This is the golden triangle – the ratio of the long side to the short is the golden section, and if you were to bisect one of the lower angles, one of the resulting triangles would also be golden. The base is the length of a pentagon which would have its apex at the top of this triangle. 

The golden section occurs often in nature – usually in terms of growth – and is so remarkable that it was the subject of a book written around 1498 that was first published in 1509. The author, a Franciscan Friar by the name of Luca Pacioli, called it ‘De Divina Proportione’ or ‘About Divine Proportion’. This shape is, in itself, holy, it seems, and so is the painting – the angels and the angles tell us so. It is Good.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Raphael

  1. Thank you for yet another eye-opening blog. I’ve seen this painting many times, most recently in the exhibition, but clearly haven’t looked.


    Liked by 1 person

  2. A pleasure, thank you! And yes, there’s always more to see: I’m constantly missing things… and it’s one of the reasons I do this. To make myself look. Just describing something to yourself thoroughly can lead to new discoveries.

    Liked by 1 person

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