More than his contemporaries, if you wanted a grand painting or church decorated in 16th-century Italy, there was only one person to call on, named after a saint, if without the saintly behaviour, it was Raphael.

An artist so lauded in life, that when he died, it is alleged from an excess of sex, he was compared to Jesus, and not just because both of them died young and on Good Friday, although that probably helped.

Charming, prolific, apt to meeting his deadlines, and possessed of self-assurance, he was despite the presumption of arrogance, also generous to his collaborators as much as he dismissed Michelangelo but was inspired by Leonardo.

For while Michelangelo and Leonardo are headline names that make you instantly think of individual works of art, Raphael is a canvas that weaves around all Renaissance art and while many would struggle to name a specific Raphael painting, most will recognise his work — or at least work by many people that copied his style.

In less than 20 years of his short life, he managed to define an artistic style that was to last centuries.

To mark the 500th anniversary of his death, the National Gallery has pulled in a wide range of his works from collections across the world to show the master artist in many of his guises. The gallery has given over 8 of its larger rooms to this exhibition, which allows them to spread the works out a bit more to make it easier to see them individually. Some works have had an entire wall given over to them, a rare treat, and another is a near life-size reproduction of one of his most famous frescoes, The School of Athens. The original being somewhat difficult to remove from the Vatican, here’s a replica that’s also at eye level, so arguably a lot easier to appreciate.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of these big exhibitions is that they can bring together pieces that have long been separated, and here, the National has managed to combine the square The Madonna of the Pinks, with the larger circular Terranuova Madonna to show how Raphael’s style evolved over a short time frame.

A study of a young woman is clearly after Leonardo’s famous Mona Lisa. His attention to detail is Leonardo-esque, as explored by the many drawings — cartoons as they are known — where he would often draw models before turning to paint, and for a man with a known eye for the ladies, he certainly didn’t shy away from manly attributes either. Raphael’s The Massacre of the Innocents, a small print yet manages to combine the horror of the event without being grisly. Some of his male form studies verge on the homoerotic, so maybe he took after Leonardo in other ways as well.

The drawings show his work creating the geometry of his paintings with hidden triangles drawing the eye in the correct direction to the main attraction of the painting.

Many of his works look like later English ceramics, but that is because he influenced so many other artists over the centuries, but where ceramics are often purely decorative,  Raphael often imbues his works with hidden meaning. His famous Alba Madonna with the baby Jesus is seen to be accepting his fate by grasping a small cross. The many paintings of the Madonna with child are thought to reflect his yearning for a mother he hardly knew.

Against the dark walls of the gallery, the paintings in their rich pastels shine in a way that they were never designed to do, being often for church walls and altars, but here, shorn of their fussy surrounds, they can stand proud at last.

The exhibition aims to show off not a choice selection of his works highlighting both his own evolution as a painter, but also his skills away from the paintbrush — architecture, drawing, and sculpture. Today we would describe him as multi-disciplinary, but back then, an artist was expected to be creative in all mediums, not just one or two of them.

He was also very conscious of the settings his works would be placed in. A small church getting a grand altar painting has a landscape added into the back to create virtual windows for the otherwise small dark room.

Fortunately, the exhibition is broken into zones with each room telling a tale of a period in his life or a style of work, with large explanatory boards by the entrances to each area. This helps immensely in putting the works into context, while also exploring the subtle office politics he had to play, especially as one Papal supporter died halfway through a commission, and he had to win the favour of the next Pope to continue it, with amendments.

Unusually for an artist, there’s one genre he didn’t work on that often, and that was portraits. His eye was heavenward — or at least, his wallet was, with most of his works being religious in nature and for devotional purposes.

In an exhibition full of godly works, the Holy Family is missing. That is, the painting called The Holy Family, which belongs to Russia’s State Hermitage Museum, and for unsurprising reasons at the moment, is stuck there.

The collection ends with a few of the surviving portraits he is known to have worked on, including a few that are thought to be of his many girlfriends. He was as prolific in love as he was in art.

The exhibition was due to take place in 2020, to mark the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, but something happened that he would have respected – the plague struck, and so the exhibition was delayed until now.

It’s been worth the wait.

With loans from the Louvre, National Gallery of Art, Washington, the Prado Museum, Uffizi Museum and the Vatican Museum this is an unprecedented opportunity to see the breadth of Raphael’s skill, creativity, and ingenuity.

The exhibition, Raphael is at the National Gallery until 31st July.

Entry is £24 for adults, and free for those under 18, but you do get an eye-popping eight galleries worth of art for that. Book tickets from here.

Exhibition Rating

★★★★★

National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, London
WC2N 5DN

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