The disconcerting unity of Raphael

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Harmony can sometimes have a disconcerting side. This is one insight to emerge from the Raphael exhibition at the National Museum of Western Art, the centerpiece of which is one of the artist’s acknowledged great works, the “Madonna del Granduca” (c. 1505).

In his major review of Western art, “The Story of Art” (1950), the renowned art critic, E.H. Gombrich, waxed lyrical about this masterpiece, calling it “truly classical in the sense that it has served countless generations as a standard of perfection in the same way as the works of Pheidias and Praxilteles.” The reference to two of the greatest sculptors from the ancient world will perhaps be lost on most people today, but the painting definitely has something of the distant, timeless beauty evoked by such names.

As a religious painting depicting the Madonna with the infant Christ, the main challenge was to give the child at least equal or greater prominence in the composition, despite the disparity in sizes between the two figures. And as a master of composition, Raphael succeeded admirably.

First, the intimacy is emphasized by the interplay of the hands: the mother’s left hand supports the child from underneath, echoed by the baby’s hand alighting on her shoulder from above.

Next, Raphael has modeled the mother’s head to recede into the shadows, and reduced its visual impact by casting the eyes downward. The infant’s face, by contrast, is more in the light and given further prominence by a gaze that seems to almost challenge the viewer.

But despite the visual balance this composition creates, the picture also strikes an unintended odd note — at least for modern audiences. The infant seems both too precocious and just a little too large and well-fed; while his mother, due to her expressionless face and downcast eyes, gives the impression of being drained by the effort of bearing and rearing him. The child’s questing glance could almost be misinterpreted as a search for further sustenance.

Such are the perils of departing from realism, something that Raphael did much less in his other works, including a portrait of himself, painted around the same time. The essence of his art, however, was imparting sweetness and serenity to religious subjects. In terms of theological history, this period was the calm before the storm of the Protestant Reformation, when art would increasingly become a propaganda tool in a sectarian struggle. Raphael’s work seems to capture perfectly the mood of preceding peace and complacency.

This is seen to perfection in “San Sebastiano” (1501-02), which shows the Christian martyr holding one of the arrows presumably used to kill him. Instead of pain, fear, or anger at his murder, his expression is almost sickeningly sweet and infuriatingly placid.

This element of tranquility gives Raphael’s paintings an appearance of effortlessness, which is deceptive. One of the factors behind Raphael’s success was his tremendous work rate, even if, like most major artists of the day, he did have plenty of assistants. Without this work ethic he could not have achieved all he did in his short span of 37 years.

The exhibition is divided into four stages: his early development in Urbino, where he was born; an important period in Florence; the culmination of his career in Rome; and his legacy seen through the works of other artists.

From around 1504-8, he was often in Florence, although he also traveled on commissions to many other places. It was in Florence that he encountered the work of Leonardo da Vinci. He was particularly impressed by Leonardo’s “pyramidal composition” using three figures, something he soon applied to his own work as shown by a pen-and-ink study for the “Esterhazy Madonna” (c. 1507).

Like this study, there are other works at the exhibition that evoke absent famous works: an etching by Marco Dente (1515-16) and a ceramic piece both use one of Raphael’s most celebrated compositions, “The Nymph Galatea” (c. 1512-14), a fresco in Rome. Although the stand-ins are charming in themselves, such works, which remind us of the absence of masterpieces, inevitably create a sense of disappointment.

Other paintings of note are “The Holy Family with a Lamb” (1507), a small work with an interesting arc-like composition, and the dramatic “Ezekiel’s Vision” (c. 1510), which portrays the Old Testament prophet’s surreal vision of God carried in a flying chariot made of living creatures, including a winged lion and bull.

Conceptualized in Renaissance-era realism, this is an impossible assemblage that shouldn’t hang together. But, once again, Raphael’s powers of composition and artistic balance force a harmony on the unwieldy subject — a fitting symbol of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church that was to split apart a few years later.

“Raffaello” at The National Museum of Western Art runs till June 2; open 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. (Fri., till 8:00 p.m.); ¥1,500. Closed Mon. (except May 6), May 7. www.nmwa.go.jp