The period of the Italian Renaissance lasted for several centuries, forming many different styles and inspiring many works that are now considered masterpieces. One of its eras often called the High Renaissance, started around 1500 and lasted approximately twenty years.1 While art historians debate the definition of this era to this day, it is clear that the painters of that time presented some of the most known creations to the world.
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One of these painters was Raphael, an Italian artist whose works can be found in the Vatican Palace as well as some private collections. The works of Raphael can be attributed to the overarching style of the Renaissance. Nonetheless, some of his creations embody the characteristics of Baroque – the movement that followed after the Renaissance.2 The last creation of Raphael, on which he worked until his death, was the Transfiguration, a large painting that is now located in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, a museum of Christian art in Vatican City.3 Transfiguration is the pinnacle of Raphael’s craft, combining the religious themes, ancient forms, and Mannerism of Renaissance and color contrasts (chiaroscuro) that preceded the rise of Baroque.
Artist’s Bibliography: Raphael
Throughout the years, Raphael’s style evolved under the influences of his father, teacher, and the people he met during his travels. As Raphael was born in a family of a painter, he started to harness his skills at an early age.4 His first known paintings were influenced by Pietro Perugino, a painter who worked in the style of the Italian Renaissance. Raphael’s works from this period in his life include the Mond Crucifixion (1502-3), the Wedding of the Virgin (1504), and the Coronation of the Virgin (1502-3).5
After leaving his hometown of Urbino, Raphael traveled to Florence and spent some time there, working and assimilating the unique traits of Florentine art into his own. While there, Raphael was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci, adopting the older artists’ posing and coloring techniques.6 During this period, Raphael created such works as the Madonna of the Meadow (1506), Deposition of Christ (1507), and Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507).7
Later, Raphael moved to Rome and spent the rest of his years there. In Rome, he created his most recognized works and developed a distinct style, accepting orders from the Church. He completed multiple frescos such as the Parnassus (1511), the Disputation of the Sacrament (1510), and the School of Athens (1511).8 The influence of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel can be found in these and other works, including the last painting of Raphael, the Transfiguration.
Chosen Work: Transfiguration
The work on the Transfiguration started in 1516 when Pope Clement VII (then a cardinal) commissioned Raphael to create an altarpiece for Narbonne Cathedral.9 The painting reflects both the achievements of Raphael as a painter and the influence of standards created in the Renaissance period. It is a large piece and depicts two significant stories from Christian history. The main subject of the painting is the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration – the event from the New Testament that demonstrated the role of Jesus as the link between the divine and earthly.10 Religious topics were traditional for Renaissance paintings and art as a whole since the most substantial part of all commissions came from the Catholic Church.11
Nonetheless, the distinct features of the Italian Renaissance period, and the High Renaissance, in particular, were the increased interest in ancient teachings, realistic depiction of humans’ physical features, and color manipulation.12 On the one hand, colors were softened to mimic the appearance of human skin. On the other hand, painters used chiaroscuro, contrasting light, and darkness for emotional expression and scene composition.13 Renaissance, while choosing to display people’s features realistically, also strived to create balance and proportion, highlighting the importance of beauty.
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Raphael’s Transfiguration encompasses the ideas of Renaissance, containing some features of unnatural Mannerism and extreme color contrasting. One can see that the placement of people in the canvas resembles a pyramid – Jesus’s body is at the top center, the apostles form sides of a triangle, and the people lying below them complete the bottom of the figure. Here, the balance expected from a Renaissance painting is present.
However, the lower part of Raphael’s last work is vastly different – it is dark and has many people standing and sitting in various poses. The top is symmetrical, according to Mannerism, while the bottom is dynamic and dramatic, predicting the incoming popularity of Baroque. Therefore, this combination demonstrates how Raphael understood contemporary traditions, both following their standards and showing which ideas will prevail in the future.
Raphael’s Transfiguration is a work that can be attributed to the period of the High Renaissance. This short era embodies the traditions of Italian Renaissance paintings while also introducing new concepts and posing ideas for the future. The Transfiguration shows two religious events, displaying both symmetry and chaos, smooth colors, and stark contrasts. Raphael’s understanding of the Renaissance and its details is apparent in the painting that follows the style while showing its near end at the same time.
Burke, Jill. “Inventing the High Renaissance, from Winckelmann to Wikipedia: An Introductory Essay.” In Rethinking the High Renaissance, edited by Jill Burke, 17-40. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Nelson, Jonathan K., and Richard J. Zeckhauser. “Raphael, Superstar, and His Extraordinary Prices.” Notes in the History of Art 38, no. 1 (2018): 15-23.
Williams, Robert. Raphael and the Redefinition of Art in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
- Jill Burke, “Inventing the High Renaissance, from Winckelmann to Wikipedia: An Introductory Essay,” in Rethinking the High Renaissance, ed. Jill Burke (New York: Routledge, 2017), 17.
- Robert Williams, Raphael and the Redefinition of Art in Renaissance Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 275.
- Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser, “Raphael, Superstar, and His Extraordinary Prices,” Notes in the History of Art 38, no. 1 (2018): 18.
- Williams, Raphael, 152.
- Ibid., 52-162.
- Ibid., 22.
- Ibid., 32-175.
- Burke, “Inventing the High Renaissance,” 5.
- Nelson and Zeckhauser, “Raphael, Superstar,” 18.
- Williams, Raphael, 151.
- Burke, “Inventing the High Renaissance,” 19.
- Williams, Raphael, 63.
- Ibid., 47.