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Raphael Portrait of the Papacy

Raphael Portrait of the Papacy
21 June 2016 0 Comment

The genius of Raphael is on display in his painting Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals circa: 1517 which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery of Florence.

Raphael’s painting was stunningly modern for his day, moving away as he did from the mainstream of the painting of Madonna’s, saints, highlights from the scriptures and the occasional visual “dip” into antiquity for subject matter. In this painting the artist focused his remarkable skill on creating a physiological portrait of a living Pope and one who was despised in Rome and throughout the Catholic world. Leo X is depicted with the self-inflicted strain of his position, facing numerous challenges to his outrageous behavior from within the Vatican and more chillingly from a certain Martin Luther in Germany. It was Luther who challenged papal authority and wanted to move his church forward and leave the medieval traditions of the fear of the unknown behind. He saw the light of education as God’s will while Leo X saw his position as Pope as absolute, enabling him to inflict upon his flock the shackle of obedience and subservience while living the life of a monarch.

Excessive personal behaviour and public grievance growing louder as each day passed was taking its toll on the Pope and that strain is clearly portrayed in the portrait by Raphael. We are told the painting sets up a series of visual contradictions between appearance and reality, intended by Raphael to reflect the unrest this period of turmoil for the papacy. The pommel on top of the Pope’s chair evokes the symbolic abacus balls of the Medici family of Leo X, while the illuminated Bible open on the table has been identified as the Hamilton Bible commissioned by the Angevin court in Naples and illustrated by the workshop of Cristoforo Orimina around 1350. The cardinals portrayed in the painting are Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici on the left, and future Pope Clement VII, and Luigi de’ Rossi on the right.

In a recent visit to the Uffizi I looked long and hard at paintings by Botticelli and the famous “Holy Family” by Michelangelo and then focused on the collection of works by Raphael in that museum, deciding that Raphael’s work had the greater “natural” presence, more realism if you prefer and it has a lot to do with his superb technique and the contemporary themes he painted. The graphic qualities of the Botticelli’s and the painting by Michelangelo portray great drawing skill yet are cold, even devoid of life. The hard outlines between background and foreground and between the human figures and nature do define and delineate but this technique also creates a kind of a caricature of nature.

Raphael on the other hand avoided hard outlines, feathering his edges, particularly when painting the human form, which induces a more natural appearance to his works. I photographed the detail above of Raphael’s painting showing the “feathered” edges of the hands and flesh of the Pope which contrasts perfectly to the metal of the magnifying glass the Pope is holding to better read the bible and the small bell to call his servant. These painted “everyday” objects reveal Raphael’s capacity to increase his pictorial realism by providing the viewer then, and today, perfectly portrayed objects we know and understand; firmly cementing our observations on the world around us. A world choreographed by a genius to tell us the story of power and the abuse of power.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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