Art History - Final Essay

The following is an analysis I did for my Renaissance Art final essay. Hopefully it makes some sort of sense to those who aren't familiar with this sort of thing:

Raphael Sanzio: Marriage of the Virgin
by Brad Reynolds
Final Essay
GS 601 - OL5

Few Renaissance artists were able to execute such an exquisite level of depth in their work as Raphael Sanzio. His mastery of the medium of painting is world-renowned, setting the bar very high for the mannerist painters that followed him. His ability to absorb new techniques and artistic concepts was unique, although he still had to rely on the foundational principles of those artists and philosophers who preceded him. Richly infused in his work are the ideas of Neoplatonism while his paintings commonly depict symbols of the human struggle between spirit and flesh. The subject matter he often chose to depict conformed to the guidelines of narrative illustration developed by his predecessors while still maintaining his individual style. By taking a closer look into the artwork that marked the rise of his particular approach to painting, one can more fully comprehend the breadth of his skills.

Raphael was born in 1483 in the city of Urbino to Giovanni de’ Santi. His father was an average painter, but had the intellect to guide his children down a more provident path than had been available to him in his youth. Not wanting Raphael to learn the rude manners of the peasants, his parents made it a special point to personally raise and nurture him. At a very early age, he appeared to have talent in the areas of painting and draftsmanship. Realizing that Raphael possessed far greater artistic abilities than himself, Giovanni knew that the boy needed greater tutelage than he could personally provide. Giovanni eventually found favor with Pietro Pergunio and arranged for Raphael to begin an apprenticeship under the master painter in Perugia. As Raphael studied and replicated his master’s style, it was remarkable how closely he was able to imitate it. Eventually, his painting skills progressed to the point of being indistinguishable from Pietro’s. During this time period, Raphael also began to develop the beginnings of his own personal style, which in later years would be influenced by the great Florentine masters Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti (Vasari 306-7).

Following his time at Pergunio’s workshop, Raphael spent some time working in Cittrà di Castello, southeast of Florence, creating altar pieces for various churches. In 1504 he painted the Marriage of the Virgin for the church of San Francesco, a piece that marks the genesis of Raphael’s personal style. The moment depicted in the painting is derived from The Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century collection of stories about the saints’ lives. According to the legend, there was a competition for the marriage of the Virgin Mary. The high priest was to award her to the suitor who could present a rod that had miraculously bloomed. Joseph was the only suitor able to perform this task, thus winning Mary’s hand in marriage. The captured moment shows the anticipation as the high priest guides Joseph’s hand in placing the ring on Mary’s finger. Other virgins congregate behind Mary on the left side of the painting while the defeated suitors stand dejectedly behind Joseph, one of them breaking his rod over his knee in frustration. In the background a temple stands, almost exactly identical to Bramante’s Tempietto, but with Brunelleschian arcades rather than Bramante’s post-and-lentil system (Kleiner 655).

The painting shows a great influence of the compositional stylings of contemporary artists, as well as a strong inspiration of his former master. The painting was most likely modeled after two of Perugino’s paintings: Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter and an earlier Marriage of the Virgin. The image itself is compositionally divided into three distinct planes with the main event in the foreground. Diagonals in the high priest’s beard, as well as the central axis of the painting, direct the viewer toward the dramatic moment. The orthogonals of the plazza tiles lead to a central vanishing point at the open doorway of the building, which corresponds to the architectural ideal of antiquity and the Renaissance. In addition, Raphael’s signature can be found over the door, declaring his centrality in the conception and execution of the work (Adams 324-6).

The influence of Neoplatonic thought is prevalent in the construction and subject matter of the painting. The composition is symmetrically balanced with equal visual elements on either side across a vertical axis while the use of scientific perspective shows Raphael’s keen attention to nature. Notable, as well, is the Christian symbolism that is integrated with Neoplatonic quest for illumination. Along the central axis of the painting is the temple, representative of the Temple of Solomon (Adams 326). Temples throughout history have symbolized humankind’s desire to commune with God, and the temple depicted in the painting conforms to this aspiration. Its style is a centrally planned building contemporary of Neoplatonic ideals that the circle was the most appropriate geometric form to represent universal harmony (Module 11, Session 2).

In Christianity, the role of high priest was synonymous with Jesus Christ and his role in atoning in behalf of humanity for their sins. Raphael’s decision to place the high priest centrally in the painting is suggestive of Christ’s centrality in one’s desire to commune with the Divine. At the same time, the cross shaped embroidery on his robe refers forward in time to Christ’s Crucifixion (Adams 326). Joseph, interestingly enough, is depicted as the only individual who is barefoot, possibly a reference to God’s admonition to Moses on Mount Sinai: “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (King James Bible, Exodus 3:5). Joseph had previously been informed in an angelic dream of Mary’s significant role in the salvation of mankind, and therefore would have the foresight to be respectful of her sanctified presence (King James Bible, Matthew 1:20-24).

Also of interest is the symbology of the event depicted. The marriage ceremony is a symbol of unification between husband and wife, although in this case it can be interpreted as mankind’s union with God through Christ. Joseph, a representation of mortal man, is joined harmoniously with Mary (a symbol of the Divine) through actions of the high priest (a symbol of Christ). The painting is saturated with symbols of man’s search for enlightenment, the key element of Neoplatonism.

It can also be observed that Raphael was aware of engaging viewers visually through the principles of istoria consistent with Leon Alberti’s treatise on painting (Module 9, Session 11). Though the figures in the painting are of varying age and fashion, their complexions are unblemished and almost idealized. Their gazes all vary in focus, mainly concentrating on the marriage ceremony or the reactions of their companions. Two figures in particular address the viewer with their gazes: a virgin on the left of the painting and a suitor on the right. Implied motion is found throughout the composition from the angered suitors breaking their rods, to the tension of the moment as Joseph slips the ring on Mary’s finger. The viewer is enveloped as a bystander to the ceremony, able to sense the frustration of the defeated as well as the anticipation of the couple’s union.

Although the event depicted is one of union, there are also many symbols of dualism that can be observed in the composition that are quite common among Renaissance artworks. First, there is a visual separation between the men and women in the painting not only in grouping, but in action. While the group of virgins looks patiently and almost longingly at the ceremony at hand, the suitors exhibit anger and frustration at the results. This, perhaps, symbolically portrays the struggle of mankind between divine virtue and the appetitive carnality of the soul. Also, two of the figures in particular bear an interesting resemblance to one another: the virgin directly to the left of Mary and the suitor behind Joseph who is bending his rod in discontent. Their heads tilted at the same angle, both display essentially the same facial features, the only subtle difference being the focus of their eyes. While the suitor focuses his frustration outward toward the viewer, the virgin chooses to direct her attention to the harmonious celebration at hand. The choice to practically duplicate the same figure in opposing genders suggests the duality of the soul in the struggle between the carnal and the divine, one part seeking after the satisfaction of inner desires while the other seeks after the understanding of the celestial.

Though his hands commanded mastery of the paintbrush, Raphael consistently built upon the artistic fundamentals of his predecessors, as can be seen in Marriage of the Virgin. He was keenly aware of the harmonious philosophies of Neoplatonic thought and sought to apply the principles of geometric beauty within his compositions. Additionally, he accurately melded the concepts of Neoplatonism with Christian symbols while his grasp of the principles of istoria draws the one emotionally into the narrative. Though his themes emphasize the individual desire for universal harmony, he was also able to metaphorically illustrate the internal struggle of mankind between earthly appetites and divine virtue. Raphael truly was a master, not only of the brush, but of transporting the viewer beyond the surface of the painting.

Works Cited
Adams, Laurie Schneider. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001. Print.
King James Bible. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1979. Print.
Kleiner, Fred S., Mamiya, Christin J., and Tansey, Richard G. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Eleventh Edition. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2001. Print.
Vasari, Girogio. The Lives of the Artists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1991. Print.

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