Understanding Renaissance Master Raphael through 5 Key Artworks

Alina Cohen
Apr 16, 2019 3:42PM

Known for his passionate love affairs, good looks, luxurious lifestyle, and early death, Raphael has become one of history’s greatest artists—and dreamboats. Whereas the other two looming figures of the Italian RenaissanceMichelangelo and Leonardo—are remembered for their passionate artworks but cantankerous public personas, Raphael embraced sensuality in and out of his studio. He began charming wealthy patrons from a young age, ensuring that he always had commissions to execute and money to spend. His self-portrait, painted around 1506, helps explain his success: Raphael rendered himself with long curly locks, searching brown eyes, smooth skin, and plush lips, glorying in his image as a sensitive, soulful aesthete.

Beyond this romantic reputation is a prolific artist who produced a varied body of work that brought Renaissance painting to its pinnacle—despite the fact that he died at age 37, in 1520. In his 2006 biography Raphael: A Passionate Life, Antonio Forcellino writes that his subject “acted as the interpreter of a very particular world, the dream of a golden rebirth to be brought about through literary studies and painting.” Raphael’s oeuvre likewise reveals a sense of “harmony, culture, and intellectual and sensual equilibrium.”

Born on Good Friday, April 6, 1483—the same day on which he’d eventually die—in Urbino, Raffaello Sanzio took over his artisan father’s workshop as a teenager. In 1500, at 17 years old, he received his first commission: an altarpiece for the church of Sant’Agostino in Perugia, an assignment that would launch his precocious career. Here, we look beyond the legend to examine Raphael’s enduring influence through five of his most important works.

Portrait of a Lady with a Unicorn (ca. 1505–06)


One of Raphael’s earliest works is also his most mysterious. The portrait depicts an elegant blonde woman holding a small unicorn, her head framed by two columns and a far-off landscape of green earth and blue sky.

Yet for centuries, the picture showed a different scene. In the 1930s, conservationists revealed that the painting had undergone multiple revisions. Raphael had initially painted a dog instead of a unicorn, and in the 17th century, another artist had painted over Raphael’s composition entirely, turning it into a picture of St. Catherine holding a broken wheel, the symbol of her martyrdom. The vandal also added a shawl over the subject’s shoulders, which had originally remained bare.

Subsequently, scholars have come up with myriad interpretations of the painting. Some note its compositional similarity to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, began around the same time, in 1503. Both women look out at the viewer with impenetrable glances and pursed lips, and the paintings similarly employ a half-length format in which their subjects appear seated, the frames cutting them off at their waists. But the identity of Raphael’s sitter, and the symbolic meaning of the unicorn, remain puzzles for historians. The mythical creature may have functioned as a symbol of purity: Legend maintained that only virgins could attract a unicorn. Of course, these virgins’ powers of persuasion also warned potential suitors of seductive cunning.

The School of Athens (1509–11)

In 1508, the Vatican summoned Raphael to Rome, where the artist would remain for the rest of his life. Pope Julius II wanted to decorate his new papal apartments—and communicate the power of the Catholic Church—with compositions by the day’s most esteemed painters. Young and impressionable, Raphael was a perfect match for the exacting pope. “Julius knew that he could mould this talent to his project, and therefore he offered every possible form of support,” Forcellino writes.

The artist’s first fresco for the papal chambers, The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, so impressed Julius that he designated Raphael the sole painter for his apartments, ordering the destruction of works that other artists had already completed. Mercifully, Raphael convinced his patron to save segments of his peers’ paintings before he embarked on his own artistic program.

His most famous fresco from this commission, The School of Athens, adorns the library. Appropriately, Raphael created an ordered scene about learning itself. At the center of the painting, the philosophers Aristotle and Plato walk beneath a series of Classical arches, surrounded by major thinkers from ancient Greece (Socrates stands in a green robe, Pythagoras kneels with a book, and Euclid uses a compass to demonstrate a mathematical idea). Raphael also painted himself into the fresco—his visage appears in the bottom right corner, looking directly at the viewer.

Raphael significantly altered his style for this work, simplifying his pictorial language to focus on a meticulous rendering of geometry and proportion. With its pristine composition and powerful homage to the origins of Humanist thought, The School of Athens has come to be considered Raphael’s masterpiece.

The Alba Madonna (ca. 1510)

While Raphael was at work on The School of Athens, Michelangelo was painting his frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. According to Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari, Raphael was the one who suggested Michelangelo for the commission—in the hopes that he’d fail, since Michelangelo was mostly known as a sculptor. Yet Raphael seems to have respected Michelangelo’s style: From the older artist, Raphael learned how to imbue the figures that inhabit his The Alba Madonna, completed in 1510, with a monumental quality.

The painting features a tranquil scene of the Virgin Mary sitting in a meadow with the baby Jesus on her lap, while Saint John the Baptist, also an infant, crouches nearby. The trio dominates the canvas, inscribed in the circular tondo style popular in Florence at the time. Besides the long cross in Christ’s right hand, there’s little to distinguish these characters as major historical figures—they sit on the ground, more like peasants than regal religious icons.

Forcellini argues that the soft, rosy-cheeked Madonna here indicates Raphael’s new attitude toward female models. “Large dark eyes with a frank, open gaze are typical of the wonderful women that Raphael started to paint in many of his works from 1510 onwards,” he writes. Through “openly sensual features,” the artist began to loosen up the way he portrayed women. Raphael created numerous Madonna paintings throughout his career (about 34 of his artworks with this theme survive today). The glut of Virgin and Child scenes is partially due to their popularity as wedding gifts; Raphael’s skill at depicting tender female subjects surely helped him win such commissions.

The Transfiguration (1516–20)

Raphael, The Transfiguration, 1516–20. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

One of Raphael’s final paintings seems to augur the artist’s untimely death. In The Transfiguration, now located in the Vatican Museum, Christ rises up to heaven in a dramatic burst of white light. On the ground beneath him, a group of colorfully clad mortals either point to the miracle of Jesus’s ascension or cower and kneel before the son of God in a writhing tableau of human drama.

The painting found a vehement critic in Raphael’s jealous peer Sebastiano del Piombo, who wrote to Michelangelo: “I am certain you will never have seen anything so utterly different from your views. I will only say that the figures look as though they had been hung up in smoke, or were made of iron.” Michelangelo’s assistant, Leonardo Sellaio, wrote to his master that The Transfiguration was a “disgrace.”

The Transfiguration was certainly a stylistic departure for Raphael. In lieu of the tender and harmonic pictures he’d been making previously, this work demonstrated a darkness and drama that may have helped usher in the Mannerist mode that dominated the late Renaissance.

La Fornarina (ca. 1520)

Raphael, La Fornarina, 1518–20. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

La Fornarina reveals Raphael at his most lascivious. Against a dark, leafy background, a woman with a bare torso and pert nipples holds a sheer cloth by her left breast, while her left arm—encircled with a blue band that reads “Raphael Urbinas”—rests on her lap. A colorful turban wraps around her dark hair, which is elegantly parted down the center. Her large brown eyes look left, out of the frame.

Raphael’s sitter was probably his lover Margherita Luti, a baker’s daughter, or fornarina. Forcellino interprets her armband as “a token of the woman’s ownership rather than of the painting’s authorship.” Raphael died before he could complete the work, which remained in his studio for the remainder of his life, suggesting that the artist may not have intended it for public view. Even centuries later, the intimate portrait remains one of the most erotically charged paintings in Western art.

During the cold winter of 1520, the year the work was completed, Forcellino pontificates, “even art had to surrender to the relentless cycle of the seasons; inebriated by the carnival spirit, Raphael dedicated himself entirely to love.” That year, Raphael succumbed to a fever, and died on his birthday. Vasari attributed his illness to excessive sex from his love affair, a prescription that today sounds unlikely. Nevertheless, Raphael’s enduring reputation as his era’s most impassioned, romantic painter had already been established.

Alina Cohen