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Biography of Raphael: Paintings, Architecture & Major Works

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  • 0:01 Early Life & Education
  • 1:25 Artistic Development…
  • 2:07 Papal Commissions
  • 4:13 Architecture, Too?
  • 4:39 A Sudden Death
  • 5:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will meet the Renaissance artist Raphael. We will examine his life, a few of his most famous paintings and his work in architecture.

Early Life and Education

Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, was born in late March or early April of 1483 in Urbino, Italy. As the son of painter Giovanni Santi, Raphael learned artistic techniques and Renaissance humanism from the time he was a small boy. His knowledge would come in very handy when his father died in 1494. With the help of his stepmother, the 11-year-old Raphael plunged right into managing his father's workshop, learning more and more as he worked and excelling beyond anyone's expectations.

As a teenager, however, Raphael knew it was time to move on. He wanted more than a small workshop. He longed to be a great artist, and to do that, he needed to develop his talent. Around 1500, he moved to Perugia to become an assistant to the artist Perugino. Here, Raphael practiced the style and techniques of the High Renaissance: classical elements, religious themes, realistic figures, intricate landscapes, compositional order and stability and complexities of light and shadow.

In the nearly four years he worked with Perugino, Raphael produced several of his early famous paintings, including the Mond Crucifixion, The Three Graces, The Knight's Dream and the altarpiece Marriage of the Virgin.

Growing Up Artistically in Florence

By 1504, Raphael realized that once again it was time to move on. He needed to gain further experience, see new places, interact with other artists and finish growing up artistically. For the next four years, the artist lived on and off in Florence, painting his famous series of Madonnas, including La Belle Jardinère in 1507. He cultivated his use of movement and the relationship between his painted figures through pieces like the Canigiani Holy Family. During these years, Raphael also created three major altarpieces, a few portraits and his well-known depiction of St. Catherine.

Commissions From the Pope

In 1508, Raphael received the chance of a lifetime and one of the highest honors an artist could achieve when Pope Julius II commissioned him to paint a room at the Vatican. Raphael moved to Rome and began work on the Stanza della Segnatura, which probably served as the Pope's library.

This room contains some of the artist's masterpieces: the School of Athens, the Parnassus and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament.

In the School of Athens, Raphael depicted the greatest thinkers of the classical age. In Parnassus, he paid tribute to classical and medieval poets, and in the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, he offered an artistic interpretation and confirmation of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. The room, which also includes Raphael's ceiling frescoes, Theology, Poetry, Philosophy and Justice, was finished in 1512.

Pope Julius was so impressed that he commissioned Raphael to paint another room, the Stanza d'Eliodoro. This time, the artist focused on God's intervention on behalf of the Church, creating such treasures as the Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, the Mass of Bolsena, the Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila and the Liberation of St Peter.

Pope Julius died in 1513, but his successor, Leo X, retained Raphael and hired him for a third room, the Stanza dell'Incendio, in 1514. Raphael designed the room to tell the story of a fire in Rome that was miraculously extinguished. By this time, the artist was so popular and busy that his workshop assistants did most of the actual painting in the room while their boss focused on completing a few more Madonnas, some altarpieces, including the famous Sistine Madonna, portraits of his benefactor popes and a few pieces commissioned by private collectors.

Architecture, Too?

In 1514, the Vatican's chief architect, Donato Bramante, died, and Pope Leo X appointed Raphael to take his place. In this capacity, Raphael drew up designs for chapels, villas, palaces and other buildings. He also cataloged and managed the treasures of antiquity discovered in Rome and created an intricate drawing of ancient Rome.

A Sudden Death

In 1517, Raphael received a commission to paint the Transfiguration. He never completed this grand project, for he died on April 6, 1520, after a 15-day illness. He was just 37 years old. Crowds packed the church and the streets to attend Raphael's funeral, and the artist was laid to rest in the Pantheon the day after his death. The inscription on his tomb offers a tribute to his art and life: 'Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die.'

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