Quick Study

John Haber
in New York City

Raphael: The Colonna Altarpiece

With a life as short as Raphael's and so rapid a creative evolution, every painting marks a turning point. With an altarpiece, which can include half a dozen or more separate panels, make that at least half a dozen turning points.

For two months, the Met rounds up the parts to go with a central panel in its permanent collection. The Colonna Altarpiece shows a painter only just making his mark, and the museum does little to make it intelligible. Still, no one learned faster than Raphael, and one can almost accept the show's limitations for the chance to lean over the shoulder of an A student. from Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece (Metropolitan Museum, 1505)

Geometry lessons

In 1505, Raphael had just moved to Florence. Painting and sculpture in Tuscany had defined the Renaissance at least a century before, and Leonardo da Vinci had outlined a new style. Raphael knew he had to be there, but he still had a long way to go before he absorbed it all. He also had yet to move to Rome, where Michelangelo completed his education in the High Renaissance. In Rome, too, the younger artist later became the model for centuries to come, as he pushed fresco to the dark, asymmetric extremes now called Mannerism.

At twenty-two, however, Raphael was still finishing a commission or two for Perugia, the town he had left behind. About midway between Florence and Rome, his home town combined the quiet of a medieval city and access to artistic trends to every side. As with everything else, he made the most of it.

From the very start, Raphael had shown that he could improve on his teacher, Pietro Perugino. Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin recalls a similar townscape by the older artist, but it achieves a central focus, a commanding architectural backdrop, and weightier human figures to match. In the Colonna Altarpiece, intended for a convent, he again has one foot in the quattrocento but the other on more solid earth. The enthroned Madonna and female saints to either side have a bland, boneless beauty. The infant Jesus comes fully clothed, lest a rude display of humanity shock the nuns—or a God. However, Raphael has already continued his learning curve.

A new High Renaissance dignity shows first in the overall design. The stairs of the throne seem of a piece with the frame's horizontal border below, as if building on the architecture of the convent itself. Instead of occupying side panels, two male saints enter the central panel as part of a single, coherent scene. The frame's pillars to either side follow or cut off the line of the men's backs, lending them a still greater solidity. In a lunette above, God appears to rise directly out of the throne's circular canopy.

The main grouping of figures has much the same force. Raphael plays a circle in depth against the pyramid of central figures, each focused around the painting's vertical axis and each contributing to the enthroned Madonna's majesty. The two male saints, the female saints behind them, and the canopy complete the circle. The Madonna's pyramid has its base in Saint Peter's book and Saint Paul's sword, the sway of a baby John the Baptist, and the perspective diagonals of the steps. The women's heads and their instruments of martyrdom lean in strict parallel. The effort may come off as fussy rather than eloquent, but it shows a young artist who will overlook nothing in the interest of structure and grandeur.

Clearly geometry rules, and Raphael has as yet few other means to convey significance. Still, the thickset male saints have fierce eyes and weighty robes, and God and his angels above echo their newly flamboyant colors. Those angels also swirl up in a newly dramatic, more fluid motion. Raphael has a long way to go, but he is getting there fast. And the journey is taking place within a single painting.

Picking up the pieces

The base of an altarpiece—the predella, after the Italian for board—often held slim, horizontal panels. This one had five, and the exhibition brings them together again. Commissions typically spelled out what scenes to include, but little more. By contrast, the constraints on a central panel could grow downright stifling, down to the individual saints and even the cost of pigments. With many artists, therefore, a predella allowed experiment as the larger display above could not.

Not so for Raphael. Forget the distinction between experiment and polish. He has too much eagerness to please and too much ambition not to throw everything he has into the main frame. He also develops so quickly that he uses ideas the moment he finds them. The predella panels, then, each belongs to a separate stage in his thought processes, but so do God and the saints above—and they get the last word.

The two smallest, outermost predella pieces, from the Dulwich Picture Gallery just south of London, once lined up helpfully with the heavy borders above. Still, these saints leave little impression whatsoever, and Raphael must have delegated them to assistants. The Road to Calvary, from London's National Gallery, has the balletic movements typical of Perugino. They barely strain or touch the ground, and Jesus himself hardly stands out from the crowd. In the hands of Caravaggio much, much later, that lack of distinction would offer a commentary on the ubiquity of suffering. Not here.

The Pietà, from the Gardner in Boston, has greater softness, and Jesus's dead body sags with the weight of grieving, much as for late Michelangelo. Luckily enough for the Met, however, its own contribution goes the furthest of all. Jesus's prayer at Gethsemane, the sleeping figures behind him, and the cliff side beside which he kneels add up to a study in humility. As with the main panel, design conveys emotions. The tiny painting portrays self-reflection, but for Raphael introspection develops only in good time.

Apparently, that holds for the Met, too. The scattershot presentation mines the museum and other local collections, but with hardly a hint as to what that leaves out—even counting only works now in America. It has nothing half as intense, as achieved, or as lovely as any number of paintings from around the same time. The Met could easily have included a small Saint George and the Dragon and a Madonna and Child, both in Washington. The museum has played this game before, most recently with Fra Angelico, and it becomes a lesson in lost opportunities.

So does the arrangement. The exhibition occupies the three, cramped rooms often used for exhibitions of works on paper, and then it strains to fill them. The last room amounts largely to documentation of the work's history, the first to a limited selection of precursors indeed. The large, square rooms also make it hard to lay out clearly a progression of themes. You yourself must compose a story—and you yourself must imagine Raphael's only large-scale altarpiece in America.

Pulling it all together

The story and the work are there, however, if you try. The exhibition has roughly six sections, and you can create mental if not physical divisions—two influences, two earlier Raphael predella panels also in American collections, Raphael sketches in connection with the commission, the work itself, some prints made from it, and how the panels passed from hand to hand. For influences, one has Perugino and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, a fairly minor follower of Leonardo who helps suggest his style.

A wall label shows the various panels in their proper places, but after that the burden falls on you. The central room's low ceilings would not allow a reassembly, even if the Met and its lenders had agreed to tinkering with surviving frames. The predella panels sit side by side, at eye level, so you have to adjust your posture to imagine their original relationship to the viewer. The museum offers no help at all imagining the more vivid colors of the original, before Mary's robe turned from blue to black.

One can indeed pull the pieces together then. Mostly, however, the pleasure comes from watching Raphael himself do it. It starts with the predella. The horizon line runs continuously across some panels, perhaps after a quick adjustment to suggest a single vision of the world, even if the earth happens to skip from soil to vegetation without warning. The two early predella panels in the first room also show the model that he is outgrowing in The Road to Calvary. Figures lean on tiptoe, almost weightless, like figure skaters.

Next, by comparing the other paintings to the central panel, one can see Raphael at work, incorporating everything as fast as others can show it to him. Perugino's shot fabrics appear in the lunette. Boltraffio's dark, heavy colors enter the shadows of the standing male saints.

Raphael as quick study extends well beyond what the Met manages to display, too. Saint Paul peers intently toward his book, much like the flanking saints in the S. Zaccaria Altarpiece of the same year, a culminating work by Giovanni Bellini in Venice. Peter's fierce squint shows acquaintance with Leonardo's caricatures. A touch of landscape, far behind the throne, includes hills colored by atmospheric perspective and a fragile spire. They look back to influences from the Northern Renaissance and ahead to the poetry of Raphael's finer Madonnas.

His mind and eye race ahead—and not just from work to work, drawing to painting, or predella to a central vision. Each figure, even each element, represents a new insight. The marvel is that the insights range from the look in a man's eyes to the structure of the work, and somehow they add up to a High Renaissance unity. An even greater marvel is that they never let up until the artist's death.

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"Raphael at the Met: The Colonna Altarpiece" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 4, 2006.


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