Review: Raphael At The National Gallery Is A Renaissance Masterpiece

Raphael, The National Gallery ★★★★★

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 26 months ago

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Last Updated 07 April 2022

Review: Raphael At The National Gallery Is A Renaissance Masterpiece Raphael, The National Gallery 5
One of many Raphael's religious paintings in the show, this one of St John the Baptist preaching. © The National Gallery, London

Raphael is regarded as one of the Italian Renaissance's great artists. His star shone brightly but fleetingly; he died of a fever aged just 37. 

National Gallery's monster exhibition shows that in a career cut tragically short, Raphael produced a slew of utterly sensational paintings, drawings, architectural plans, tapestries. You get the feeling if he'd turned his hand to cooking, he would have been conjuring up Michelin stars left, right and centre.

A crucifixion scene painted by Raphael when he was just 20 shows Christ's body pale and limp on the cross; it's such a powerful work, you can feel the life leaving his body. But Raphael always strived to improve, and this exhibition charts how his style evolved as he moved around Italy and learned from other painters. The evolution is most evident in a room of paintings showing the much-produced subject of the Madonna and child. Raphael shifts from the traditional pose of the infant Christ sat on his mother's lap, to one in which they touch heads — far more tender and reflective of motherly love.

Raphael's Madonna and child paintings evolved to show greater tenderness. © The National Gallery, London

One of the superstar paintings of the show is that of youthful Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti; the way the shadow is cast across his face as he's lit from one side is sublime. It makes me wonder what other masterpieces Raphael could have produced if he'd lived until old age, especially given his prolificness.

I could spend this entire review discussing the superb paintings but there's a lot more besides. A quick sketch of a young woman, based on the Mona Lisa, flaunts Raphael's draughtsmanship skills and shows he was learning from another great, Leonardo. At the other end of the size scale, huge celestial tapestries — populated with angels and winged bulls — highlight how his talents effortlessly translated to textiles.

One of the large scale tapestries. © Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas. Madrid

Rather than being staged in the usual Sainsbury Wing, the exhibition is staged in the National Gallery's high-ceilinged main galleries, giving each work the space it deserves (and will likely need, given how popular the show will surely be).

Most visitors will walk in knowing Raphael's reputation as one of the greatest artists that ever lived; they will leave having seen incontrovertible proof of it.  

Raphael is on at The National Gallery from 9 April to 31 July. Tickets are  £24 for adults.