Raphael, “The Madonna of the Pinks” (“La Madonna dei Garofani”) (c. 1506-7), oil on yew 11 x 8.8 inches (© The National Gallery, London)

LONDON — Art has triumphed over the pandemic! Raphael, that Renaissance master, the man described by Vasari, his first biographer, as the universal artist, is at last among us in all his five-star-rated magnificence! 

Over the top? 

Perhaps. But after all, April 6 was not only Raphael’s press day at the National Gallery, it was also his birthday (he was born on April 6, 1483) and his death day (he died on April 6, 1520, of a fever, at the tender age of 37), and this huge and long-anticipated exhibition, which encompasses the entire career of the man who was already being described as a maestro at the age of 17, was opening at last, a full two years after it was first announced. 

And so on that particularly cold and blustery spring morning it was quite difficult to climb the steps of the Portico Entrance in Trafalgar Square without finding oneself in the mild grip of an awkward, if not slightly uncharacteristic, mood of reverence, or even sanctity.

Raphael, “Portrait of Pope Julius II” (1511), oil on poplar, 42.8 x 31.9 inches (© The National Gallery, London)

Why this reverence, though? All sorts of part-answers come crowding in, some odder and less credible than others. The name, for a start. The name RAPHAEL sounds mellifluously otherworldly in the way that it blows itself out between the lips, as if the man was really meant to be born a saint, and missed that vocation by a divine whisper of last-minute disapprobation. 

In fact, he was born a mere man, a citizen of Urbino in the Marche, the son of a court painter, who was orphaned very young and raised by an uncle who also happened to be a priest. Perhaps the reverence is due to his talents, which were superabundant, and moved in so many directions at once. He was a painter, printmaker, architect, designer, sculptor, and much else. His industriousness, and the consistent quality of his output, were superhuman. That is undeniable.

Let’s cut the hysteria and think about Raphael a little more soberly and somberly then. Some of the best of the show’s 92 works (about ten percent of the total, ranging from paintings to prints, from designs for tapestries to architectural drawings, bronze roundels and much else) already belong to London’s National Gallery, so they have not had to travel far to represent their artist at his finest. The first major altarpiece that we encounter in the very first gallery is the so-called “Mond Crucifixion” (1502-3), and it could not be more characteristic of the man, young or old. 

Raphael, “An Allegory (Vision of a Knight)” (c. 1504), oil on poplar, 6.73 x 6.8 inches (© The National Gallery, London)

It is a stage-managed crucifixion scene, beautifully poised and balanced. It has a great sweetness about it, a symmetry, and an astonishing clarity in its use of color. Above all things else, it idealizes the human form. Raphael is so good at making a human face, and especially a female human face, look almost more than perfect. Are these really human faces at all? we might find ourselves asking, as yet another oval-faced Madonna with unblemished skin swims into view. They are of course, for the most part, religious faces — often saints, madonnas, apostles — and it is the fact that these images are engineered to transport us to a realm of piety beyond that which we mere mortals habitually inhabit, that counts most of all. It is our task to revere, and to be awestruck by, their otherworldliness, to acknowledge that we, their poor human cousins, must regard ourselves as extraordinarily privileged to be contemplating such miraculously conjured presences. We do them obeisance — to a degree.

Raphael made these great set pieces, again and again, to beautify churches, villas, and even the private apartments of popes, politicians, and bankers. He worked for two popes in succession, and he painted an extraordinary portrait of Julius II in old age, when the man’s power was ebbing away. Julius looks like a great felled column in all the magnificence of his decrepitude, kept upright and together only by the sheer ostentation of his adornments and the sturdy dependability of his papal throne. Count the expensive rings on the fingers of his hand! O to be a thief!

Raphael, “Study for the Head of an Apostle in the Transfiguration” (c. 1519), Black chalk over pounced, dotted outlines on paper, 14.7 x 10.9 inches, Private Collection, New York (© Private Collection)

Raphael painted relatively few portraits as intimate as this one during his short lifetime, and even fewer in which he could be said to have painted them in order to please himself, because he was always so much in demand by immensely rich and powerful male patrons for the kinds of things that they wanted him to do. They wanted him to beautify public (and private) spaces, all the greater to reflect their own power and importance — beneath the ever-watchful eye of the Christian God, their chief sponsor, in whose revered name they splashed all this cash. 

Raphael was the very well remunerated servant of these rich masters, and this was entirely a matter of choice. He was boundlessly ambitious and intimidatingly energetic (he was already running a studio by the age of 17), charming, good-looking (though not to an excessive degree), diplomatic, and utterly opportunistic. Michelangelo loathed him because, though much younger, Raphael seemed to sweep all before him. What a break for the irascible, prickly Michelangelo that his young rival died, quite unexpectedly, of a fever, when he did, leaving him unchallenged for decades! 

And Raphael, the name, the work, the style, has resonated and resonated across the centuries. The allure of all that sweetness soon declined, under the careless custodianship of many, many lesser talents, into the chic and the sentimental.

Raphael, “Saint Catherine of Alexandria” (c. 1507), oil on poplar, 28.4 x 21.9 inches (© The National Gallery, London)

Raphael continues at the National Gallery (Trafalgar Square, London, England) through July 31. The exhibition was curated by David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester; Tom Henry, Professor of History of Art (Emeritus) at the University of Kent; and, for the National Gallery, Dr. Matthias Wivel, the Aud Jebsen Curator of Sixteenth Century Italian Paintings.

Michael Glover is a Sheffield-born, Cambridge-educated, London-based poet and art critic, and poetry editor of The Tablet. He has written regularly for the Independent, the Times, the Financial Times,...