Should Raphael be compared on the same tier to Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci?
Raphael was undoubtedly an enormous talent and many consider his achievements to be the height of the high renaissance, building on the legacy of his predecessors Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. It has been said that the pope cried upon hearing the news of his premature death and mass audiences attended his funeral, where he was eventually left to rest in the Pantheon. For 400 years following Rafael’s death it was generally accepted that he was the greatest painter of all time. But was Raphael’s reputation exaggerated due to his premature death that occurred at the height of his powers (37 years old) or does Raphael deservedly sit on the same pedestal or even beyond the two great giants of the Renaissance – Leonardo and Michelangelo?
Raphael’s work no doubt benefitted a great deal from the legacies of Leonardo and Michelangelo and in many of Raphael’s artworks the lessons he took from these two can be clearly seen. The School of Athens, Raphael’s great masterpiece, no doubt pays some homage to Leonardo’s last supper, with the richness in conversation and expressions. Many of his paintings also use Leonardo’s famous three figures in a triangular composition. The homage to Michelangelo can also be seen in many of his works, notably in his Madonna and Child paintings, a subject popular at the time and tackled many times by Michelangelo. In Raphael’s School of Athens, legend has it that upon seeing the Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel ceiling, so impressed was he that he decided that he must paint Michelangelo into his painting as an afterthought. This form, believed to be Michelangelo has a greater weight compared to the other earlier painted figures, his anatomy and foreshortening appear more convincing, his form in general is more solid, all no doubt inspired by the weighty, powerful figures of Michelangelo’s masterpiece just next door. No one can question the merits of The School of Athens, it is one of the true masterpieces’ of Art, but could this have been achieved without the previous efforts of Leonardo and Michelangelo? The school of Athens no doubt adds an extra element of dynamism with added depth compared to the table scene of Leonardo’s Last Supper. The same could be said of his ‘Transfiguration’ where characters fade into the darkness as they move towards the background. This layering and depth is no doubt a new level of realism but I would argue that Da Vinci really paved this path in his unfinished ‘Adoration of the Magi,’ which while still far from finished opens a new realm for depth, layering and composition, which Rafael ran with. The floating and dramatic characters of the Transfiguration no doubt also took inspiration from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, but in saying that, it is quite likely that the Transfiguration also influenced Michelangelo’s Last Judgement which was painted some 20 years following Rafael’s death. Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and a number of his terrific portraits such as La Velata and the portrait of Baldassare Castiglione are also masterful works that indicate that in many cases he built upon his predecessors but in comparison did he innovate as much as his genius predecessors and this question I think lies his ultimate greatness and level of contribution?
In some cases I would argue that he matched his predecessors. He no doubt benefitted from focusing only on painting which allowed him to be much more prolific then Leonardo. But I would argue that his work is also less consistent. One component of this certainly comes down to experience and mastering his craft. There are almost two distinctive phases of his career, the first prior to 1511 and the second until his death. In his earlier years his figures are notably stylised whereas in his later work he achieves more sophisticated renderings and compositions. Even still, in his more mature stages there are still some anomalies and lapses in standard. In Leonardo’s portraits there is a great depth, realism and mystery. In Raphael’s self-portrait, for example, it is comparatively flat, with only minor shadow and colour variation. Likewise, his portrait of Pope Julius II appears more closely related to a Giotto then a Da Vinci with much of the realism is lacking. A number of his Madonna faces are also clearly out of proportion, strongly stylized with a round non-undulating face. The major difference between Raphael and Leonardo is that it appears that for Leonardo, nature was his teacher, whereas for Raphael he was no doubt a studious disciple of Leonardo and his predecessors. The problem with imitating predecessors is that one can only ever match their achievements; whereas through Leonardo’s approach he was able to revolutionize art and take it to new levels. Leonardo also seemed to paint for himself, he was not concerned about deadlines or clients, but continued painting on a work for as long as he deemed necessary to satisfy his meticulous standards, often painting and repainting multiple times. Raphael on the other hand appears to have been an obliging creator, producing far more and repeating the same themes over and over to keep clients happy. His stronger desire to please clients is a likely reason for the inconsistency in his work as while Leonardo would not relinquish a work he was not 100% satisfied with, Raphael would ensure he met deadlines, often at the expense of the outcome. Raphael’s work also seems to pay some homage to Botticelli, somewhat stylized, graceful, vibrant colours, clearly defined lines and compositions. Raphael’s work is no doubt charming and somewhat less serious then Michelangelo and Leonardo and for this reason Raphael’s paintings had and remain to have great appeal. The great contribution of Raphael to art was perhaps not in taking art to it’s next level in realism but his injection of charm, the best example of which are the angels at the bottom of his Sistine Madonna which has become one of the most beloved images in all of art history. In many ways Raphael’s legacy really builds on Botticelli’s work but combines some of the added realism from Michelangelo and Leonardo. Perhaps this is his great contribution, combining the best of his predecessors. Another notable contribution was his erotic portrait ‘La Fornarina’ which no doubt played a significant influence on the female and seductive nude, which has become a major theme in art, later typified by Ingres. Rafael was famous for his promiscuity, in contrast to Leonardo and Michelangelo, both suspected to have been homosexuals, so his erotic artworks were certainly braking new grounds and no doubt left a long legacy.
Rafael at his best
Rafael great contribution
Another aspect, which Raphael’s career benefitted a great deal was his relationship with Bramante. Bramante was the Popes Architect and was a close friend to Raphael, both being from the town of Urbino. Bramante, like many of the artists at the time, either through jealousy, fear of his own position or a personality clash, or a likely combination of all three – disliked Michelangelo. Bramante was able to convince the Pope to entrust the painting of the Pope’s Stanza della Segnatura to the extremely young Raphael and sought to get Michelangelo sacked from the Sistine Chapel and replaced by Raphael. Although Raphael was more pleasing to work with, the Pope eventually decided against this, such was the quality of work being produced by Michelangelo. Michelangelo’s work spoke for itself. The results justified the painful process.
Raphael was also born at the ideal time, having benefited from the efforts of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, who helped elevate the reputation of artists as genius’. He lived at the height of the Renaissance, the height of societies interest in art and the height of artistic commissions. With Michelangelo and Leonardo reluctant to paint, people were keen for a more accessible master and the prolific Raphael clearly filled that void. At the peak of his powers his death came as a great surprise. Much loved by the Pope, arguably the most powerful man on the planet at the time, his reputation was assured and elevated and in my opinion slightly exaggerated. This is not to talk down his incredible achievements but the innovations achieved by Leonardo and Michelangelo revolutionized art while Raphael brought together the best of his predecessors, rather then matching or surpassing their levels of innovation. Raphael should be greatly respected but I believe there are dozens of artists who contributed as much and he should therefore not be considered in the same light as the great powers of Leonardo and Michelangelo. If any is worthy to be considered in the same light as Michelangelo and Leonardo, at least in relation to painting alone, I would argue that Caravaggio is the most suitable candidate, as although he also took a great deal from these two great predecessors, he also made many innovations and took painting to the next level of realism and power. His realism and dynamism, his deep contrasts from dark to light, his dramatic compositions all elevated art to a new level and influenced generations to come up to this day. In contrast Rafael’s death was generally considered the end of the Renaissance. He no doubt influenced generations to come but as his career was largely based on learning from his predecessors, for the next generations to do the same, would lend itself to a natural decline; it is only when nature is our teacher combined with originality that new paths can be forged. Rafael contributed a lot and had he lived for another 30 or 40 years perhaps he could have been compared on the same pedestal as Michelangelo and Da Vinci. Afterall, Da Vinci’s first great individual artistic achievements begun beyond the age of 35, whereas Rafael died at the age of 37. Likewise, Michelangelo lived a very long and productive life dying at the age of 88, a remarkable age at that time. Rafael clearly had enormous talent, but we can only speculate whether his achievements would have continued to grow had his life not been cut short. The fact it did, ensured he was remembered at the height of his powers but with the advantage of time and context I don’t think many contemporary scholars could compare his achievements to the two great masters that proceeded him.