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Raphael at the Met: The Colonna Altarpiece

A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin

About the show:

Raphael at the Met: The Colonna Altarpiece, exclusively at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, reunites the seven panels of the Italian High Renaissance artist's masterwork for the first time since their dispersal in the Seventeenth Century. Exceptional paintings and drawings by Raphael (Raffaelo Sanzio or Santi, 1483-1520) are amply supplemented by those of his noteworthy contemporaries. Assembled together, they describe the poignant moment in the young artist's career when he ventured from his native Urbino to cosmopolitan Florence during a high point in Italy's cultural history.

The first two rooms exhibit works by the prolific Raphael and a number of older Italian artists. The third describes recent scientific studies of the Colonna Altarpiece (ca. 1504-5) and chronicles the ownership of its components. Bringing a magnifying glass for close examination of the drawings on display is highly recommended.

Before being orphaned at 11 years of age, Raphael's father, Giovanni Santi (d. 1494), introduced his son to painting and the intellectually enlightened Humanist court of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino (r. 1444-1482). The Ashmolean Museum's Head of a Youth (ca. 1500-2), almost certainly a self-portrait of Raphael and not included in this exhibition, attests to the self-assured artist's exceptional drafting abilities from a very early age.

Image © The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Used with permission
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi) (Italian, 1483-1520)
Head of a Youth, Possibly a Self-Portrait, ca. 1500-2
Inscribed in ink at the bottom of the sheet:
Ritratto di se medessimo quando Giovane
("Portrait of himself when young")
Grey-black chalk heightened with white on faded paper
38.1 x 26.1 cm
Presented by a Body of Subscribers, 1846
158 P II 515
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
[Not in exhibition]

Between 1495 and 1500, the talented Raphael arrived in Perugia, already having mastered the basic principles of painting. There he met the Umbrian artist Pietro Vannucci (ca. 1450-1523). Called Perugino, his lyrical depictions of Biblical narratives and Christian saints had a lasting effect on Raphael. Perugino was known for his graceful figures as much as he was for his remarkable aptitude in creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat picture plane convincingly. The precocious Raphael quickly absorbed Perugino's techniques.

In the 2004 catalogue of the landmark exhibition Raphael: From Urbino to Rome, Hugo Chapman demonstrated that due to an overwhelming lack of archival evidence, Perugino was not so much the young Raphael's mentor as he was his artistic peer. In no way does this scholarly revelation discount the importance of Perugino's influence on Raphael. To that end, The Met's exhibition features a selection of works by Perugino and other artists that were created prior to and around the time of the Colonna Altarpiece.

Perugino's Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lucy (ca. 1505) were painted for a double-sided altarpiece intended for Florence's Church of the Santissima Annunziata (Most Holy Annunciation). In the first of Perugino's two panels, Saint John holds a long slender staff surmounted by a cross. In the accompanying painting, Saint Lucy, a Sicilian martyr, firmly clutches a goblet of fiery light to her chest, a symbolic reference to the torturous loss of her eyes during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 A.D.). Both figures amply fill the architectural niches in which they stand.

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Used with permission
Pietro Vannucci, called Perugino (Italian, ca. 1450-1523)
Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lucy, ca. 1505
Oil (?) on wood
63 x 26 3/8 in. (160 x 67 cm)
Gift of the Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, 1981
(1981.293.1, .2)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Another proponent of the Umbrian artistic tradition in which the young Raphael was trained was Pinturicchio (ca. 1454-1513). His Madonna and Child (ca. 1490-95), completed while the artist executed six large frescoes for the Vatican apartments of Rodrigo Borgia, the treacherous, licentious and provocative Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503), demonstrates a sweet tenderness characteristic of Raphael's early works. In this composition, perhaps created for a relative of the notorious pontiff, the Virgin Mary presents the young Jesus with a breviary or missal open to a prayer traditionally recited at the nighttime canonical hour of Matins. A warm, evening type of light bathes the tall trees and mountainous landscape that dominate the painting's background.

Image © Philadelphia Museum of Art; Used with permission
Pinturicchio (Italian, ca. 1454-1513)
Madonna and Child, or Virgin Teaching Jesus to Read, 1490-95
Oil and gold on panel
24 x 16 3/4 in. (61 x 42.5 cm)
John G. Johnson Collection, 1917 (1336)
© Philadelphia Museum of Art

It is regrettable that Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece (1504-5) could not be reassembled in an imitation Italian Renaissance frame to simulate the masterpiece's original appearance. This is due to the low ceilings of the second-floor galleries especially chosen to display many of this exhibition's light-sensitive drawings. However, the eye-level placement of the work's components in the show's central room affords the viewer a unique opportunity to study its pieces closely. A color photograph of the altarpiece's individual parts, arranged in their original configuration, is on display for the sake of visual reference.

The Colonna Altarpiece was painted for a chapel of the Franciscan nuns of Sant'Antonio di Padova in Perugia. According to Italian biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), the conservative cloistered community requested that the infant Jesus and young Saint John the Baptist be painted fully clothed. The seated majestic Madonna with her voluminous mantle, the Christ Child and His infant cousin are portrayed on a tiered and canopied throne in the middle of a meadow, flanked by four saints (Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria and a female one still unidentified). In true Renaissance fashion, the figures are arranged in a sacra conversazione (sacred conversation). Suspended in time, all of them inhabit the same pictorial space but do not necessarily communicate with one another in this splendid example of devotional painting. Raphael's pyramidal organization of the main panel's three solidly modeled protagonists anticipates a number of the artist's later compositions that were inspired, in part, by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Used with permission
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio or Santi)
(Italian, Marchigian, 1483-1520)
Sant'Antonio di Padova Altarpiece
(Colonna Altarpiece), ca. 1504-5
(detail: main panel)
Oil and gold on wood
Overall, 67 7/8 x 67 7/8 in. (172.4 x 172.4 cm);
Painted surface, 66 3/4 x 66 1/2 in. (169.5 x 168.9 cm)
Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1916 (16.30a)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Shortly after his 1504 arrival in Florence, Raphael was influenced by the works of the Dominican friar Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517). In his Madonna and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist (ca. 1497), the Virgin Mary, Her son and nephew are depicted in the corner of a room. The chamber's two windows are open to a landscape reminiscent of that in a triptych (three-panel painting) by early Netherlandish painter Hans Memling (ca. 1435/40-1494). The painting's pieces, a Virgin and Child with Angels and Saint John the Baptist and Saint Lawrence (ca. 1480), are divided between Florence's Uffizi Gallery and London's National Gallery.

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Used with permission
Baccio della Porta, called Fra Bartolommeo
(Italian, 1472-1517)
Madonna and Child with the Young Saint
John the Baptist
(ca. 1497)
Oil and gold on wood
23 x 17 1/4 in. (58.4 x 43.8 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1906 (06.171)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Raphael carefully studied the cartoons, drawings and paintings of Leonardo da Vinci while in Florence. He was especially impressed by the elder artist's complicated compositions and his mastery of chiaroscuro (the interplay of light and shade and its effects on modeling in painting and drawing). In his Designs for a Nativity or Adoration of the Magi; Perspectival Projection (1480-85), an often copied study for an undocumented work either lost or never completed, Leonardo's use of chiaroscuro, one of a number of techniques that Raphael employed in his own paintings, in evident in the drawing's rounded figures.

Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Used with permission
Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519) Designs for a Nativity or Adoration of the
Christ Child; Perspectival Projection
Metalpoint, partly reworked with pen and dark
brown ink, the lines ruled with metalpoint on pink
prepared paper
7 5/8 x 6 3/8 in. (194 x 162 mm)
Rogers Fund, 1917 (17.142.1)
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art's presentation of Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece and accompanying works by other Italian Renaissance masters aptly describes the young artist's early years in Perugia and Florence. During this period, he readily learned the lessons of Perugino, Fra Bartolommeo and Leonardo da Vinci, having incorporated them into his artistic vocabulary while developing a style of painting uniquely his own.

Click here for a gallery of additional works of art in the special exhibition.

About the catalogue:

Wolk-Simon, Linda. Raphael at the Met: The Colonna Altarpiece
(exh. cat.). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006.

This affordable softcover Bulletin describes the exhibition's works of art as well as the history of Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece. Some pieces, although described, are not illustrated in this publication.

For further reading:

Becherer, Joseph Antenucci, et al.
Pietro Perugino: Master of the Italian Renaissance (exh. cat.).
Grand Rapids, MI: The Grand Rapids Art Museum, 1997.

Chapman, Hugo, Tom Henry and Carol Plattozza, et al.
Raphael: From Urbino to Rome (exh. cat.).
London: National Gallery Company, 2004.

Click here for an in-depth review of the catalogue.

Musée de Luxembourg (ed.). Raphael: Grace and Beauty
(exh. cat). Milan: Skira, 2001.

"Raphael at the Met: The Colonna Altarpiece" is on view from June 20 through September 3, 2006 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028-0198 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website: www.metmuseum.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $20.00 for adults, $10.00 for senior citizens (65 years of age and older) and $10.00 for students. This includes same-day admission to The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art's branch of Medieval Art located in Manhattan's scenic Fort Tryon Park. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.


From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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