The Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery is a humdinger. Paintings, prints and drawings from across Europe, the US, the UK and private collections, as well as the National Gallery’s own collection, are together in one place for the first time.
The catalogue makes compelling reading both before and after seeing the exhibition, as well as being the next best thing if you cannot make the show in person.
Each entry -and there are nearly 90 of them- is richly illustrated and with a wealth of textual information. Possible or probable sources of inspiration are traced; relating The Tempi Madonna to sculptural depictions by Donatello or The Bridgewater Madonna to a marble relief by Michelangelo brings home the realization that Raphael was not a solitary genius working in isolation.
The biographical essay that opens the catalogue charts his life, from birth in Urbino in 1483 to a sudden death at the age of 37, his acquaintances and artistic influences. Recognised for outstanding ability in his own lifetime, Raphael epitomises Renaissance art in ways that went unchallenged until the modernist revolution of the early twentieth century.
On first viewing, there is an overwhelming sense of wonder at Raphael’s use of colour, the serenity of his Madonnas, the balance of his compositions.
His ability to paradoxically convey stillness and movement within the same scene is evident not just in paintings like Saint Catherine of Alexandria but also in his drawing for The massacre of the innocents and the consequent engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi.
As in ancient Greek drama, where psychological verisimilitude is less important than the form that places masked bodies on a performance space, or the way Greek sculpture gives body to human experience through posture, tragedy is not weakened but elevated above emotional representation to something sublime.
Repeat viewings of Raphael’s work are essential and, although a ticket for the exhibition is costly 24 GBP), membership schemes are good value and allow for as many visits to this and all other shows as can be managed. The print catalogue helps in bringing to attention exquisite details like the blue designer sandals in the Alba Madonna, the blue and gold striped turban in La Fornarina or -when he was not yet twenty and perhaps a bit of a fashionista- the dark blue damask tunic and patterned shirt in Saint Sebastian.
Raphael’s mother died when he was eight and his father’s demise three years later left him an orphan.
Knowing this, there is poignancy in his portrayals of mothers with their babies and tender scenes of family intimacy that transcend their ostensibly religious intent.
Such compassion, and the sensibility for beauty is rendered with precise technical knowhow: analysis of The Ansidei Madonna reveals how it was painted over an incised grid which divided the surface into nine squares vertically and six horizontally. Perfection requires a ruler.
The Raphael exhibition is at the National Gallery in London until 31 July. The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is published by The National Gallery.