How Raphael Composed His Paintings
The impeccably beautiful techniques of a Renaissance master
I’ve long been an admirer of Raphael, the Italian painter of the High Renaissance. His attention to composition has few rivals in the history of art, and for me, his pursuit of beauty never ceases to reward, no matter how many times I look at his work.
Raphael was aged 21 when he travelled to Florence, Tuscany, in the year 1504. Florence was one of the great artistic centres of Italy at the time and had a fiercely competitive artistic scene. Raphael took his profession seriously, and in the city known for disegno — for draftsmanship — he set about bringing his techniques to a new level of expression.
Composition played a vital role. The precise arrangement of elements in a painted space gave his work an inner unity and structural balance. Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Raphael made use of composition to elevate his art towards the Renaissance ideal of mathematical harmony.
One of Raphael’s earliest works from his Florentine period is the altarpiece of The Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and St. Nicholas of Bari (1505), which can now be seen at the National Gallery in London.
The space of the painting is divided into three equal bands, running both vertically and horizontally, providing an underlying grid structure of nine parts. There is clearly a circular core to the work too, made by the monumental arch at the top that opens out to a green Tuscan landscape. Lines of perspective draw the eye towards the heart of the work, to the Virgin and Child. The achievement of the artist is to make none of this look forced.
More subtly, and most interestingly, there are four arching lines that correspond roughly with the horizontal bands. These flexing lines bend progressively upwards in such a way as to seem to lift the whole artwork, upwards and perpetually rising.
A year after this altarpiece, Raphael painted the Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del Prato), also known as the Madonna del Belvedere after the Viennese castle where it hung for many years.
In this work, the influence of Leonardo da Vinci is evident in the obvious pyramidal composition. Raphael has moved away from the strict grid structure, making a work that is more personal and simplified.
Mary’s head creates the top of a triangle shape; the points of the base are made by her extended right foot and the toes of John the Baptist (bottom-left). There is an inner triangle too, formed between the two children and the shape of Mary’s reaching arm. The unified format gives the work an architectural structure, yet with an inner movement provided by the smaller triangle. Again, the naturalism of the figures blended with this highly formal structure is a wonderful achievement.
Shortly after, around 1506–7, Raphael painted the The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John, otherwise known as the Canigiani Holy Family after the Florentine family who once owned it.
Again, the evident pyramidal arrangement provides a complete inner unity to the painting. At this point, we see Raphael reaching new heights with the design of his paintings. To arrange five figures in this complex way is no easy task. Moreover, the exchange of affectionate glances between the figures yields a wealth of dynamic movement within the triangle. It results in the most complete and complex version of the Holy Family that Raphael painted during his Florentine period.
In 1508, Raphael moved to Rome. He was summoned there by Pope Julius II to decorate the personal apartments in the Vatican. The new commission meant a fresh set of artistic challenges for the artist, who now began working on more expansive projects.
As Raphael’s work grew in maturity, his reliance on the pyramid evolved into a softer blend of structural elements. Take this painting he made in 1510, The Alba Madonna, depicting Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist in a typical Italian countryside. The triangular composition is still present, but it is allowed to flex with a degree of musicality that is new to Raphael’s work. An elliptical movement creates a beautiful rhythm across the work.
The Triumph of Galatea, painted by Raphael in 1512, demonstrates how far Raphael has come. The painting shows the nymph Galatea standing on a giant seashell led by two dolphins, in the company of nymphs and tritons while three putti in the air are drawing their bows.
The composition of this later work still utilises a pyramidal shape in the lower half of the painting, yet the plethora of movement across the whole space breaks through the lines of the base-triangle to create a painting that is full of animation and change. The work verges on the chaotic but never quite tips over. Here, Raphael manages to instil the work with dramatic tumult suitable for the story whilst at the same time keeping the entire set-piece contained and highly organised.
This small selection of works is but a fraction of the artwork that Raphael produced in his short life. He died in 1520 at the age of just 37. From 1517 until his death, he lived in the grand palace of Caprini in the Borgo, in Rome, working mainly in the Vatican apartments. At his own request, he was buried in the Pantheon.
My name is Christopher P Jones. I’m an art historian and critic, and the author of How to Read Paintings, available here.
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