Lorenzo Lotto in Rome (2) – the case of the fictive tapestries

In the previous post we have seen that Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556/7) worked with Raphael Santi on the papal apartments in the Vatican some time after 1509 when he received advance payments for work still to be carried out. But how long did he stay in Rome? So far it has been assumed that the commission for the Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece in Bergamo for which he signed the contract in 1513 meant that he had left Rome forgood. But what if he had not? Are there more frescos in the Vatican Stanze that could possibly be identified as his?

Stanza di Eliodoro

Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatian Palace

1. Stanza di Eliodoro, Vatian Palace

It has recently been suggested that, apart from the Pandects fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Lotto’s hand can also be detected in the central vault of the Stanza di Eliodoro (Figs. 1 and 2). Raphael Santi started work here after the room had already undergone significant changes. A chronology of the decorations of this room too complicated to outline here, but in 1511 no one could have foreseen that the patron of the project, Julius II, would die two years later and that his successor, the Medici pope Leo X, would order various alterations. For instance, while Julius’ coat of arms and inscriptions with his name remained above the spandrels, the central part of the vault was modified from eight sectors to four, each twice the size of the original eight sectors. It is that new vault that concerns us here.

Fictive tapestries?

Lorenzo Lotto (?), central vault of the Stanza di Eliodoro

2. Lorenzo Lotto (?), central vault of the Stanza di Eliodoro

The general theme of the room, specifically developed for Pope Julius, is that of God’s intervention in human destiny. The central vault presents episodes of divine intervention in the history of Israel (the Moses and the Burning Bush, the Announcement of the Flood to Noah, Jacob’s Dream and the Sacrifice of Isaac) for which, as in the case of the Pandects, Raphael made the designs. Stylistically the vault has puzzled people ever since the 17th century when the attribution to Raphael was already questioned. Since the discovery of Raphael’s preparatory drawings (Fig. 4) and taking into account the rare cartoon fragment for the figure of Moses in Moses and the Burning Bush (Fig. 3), Raphael’s authorship was generally accepted half a century ago.

The difference in appearance between the vault and the other frescos in the room was ingeniously explained by assuming that they are “fictive tapestries”. It is certainly peculiar that the scenes seem to be bordered by painted ropes, as if they are textiles attached to the ceiling by means of a noose. See, for instance, a detail from the Noah fresco (Fig. 5). But that still does not mean that Raphael painted them.

5. Detail from Noah scene

Dating the vault

The colossal figures and the colour scheme of the vault frescos are based on Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. In particular the colori cangianti of Noah’s wife (Fig. 6) recall figures such as the seated woman in the lunette of Michelangelo’s Achim and Eliud and her cap resembles that of the Cumaean Sibyl (Fig. 7) while God the Father, with his fluttering green drapery and large attendant putti is adapted from Michelangelo’s vision of God in the Creation of Adam (Fig. 8), suggesting that the planning and execution of the Eliodoro vault postdated October 1512 when the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was unveiled.

Lorenzo Lotto (?) ....

6. Lorenzo Lotto, Announcement of the Flood to Noah


A preparatory drawing for the vault scene of Moses and the Burning Bush (Fig. 9) provides a clue for another date: on the same sheet are several architectural sketches.

Raphael Santi, preparatory drawing for Moses and the Burning Bush, Uffizi (b/w image)

9. Raphael Santi, preparatory drawing for Moses and the Burning Bush, Uffizi (b/w image)

When Bramante died in 1514 it was Raphael who succeeded him as the new architect of St Peter’s and the architectural drawings may relate to his new task. They are dated by Oberhuber between 1 April and 1 August 1514. Since Raphael seems to have finished work in the Stanza di Eliodoro and had started work on the Stanza dell’Incendio by 1 July 1514, it seems that the “fictive tapestries” date from this period.

Identifying Lotto’s hand

Already in 1926 and 1931 it was suggested by scholars that the Eliodoro vault was painted by the same hand as Tribonian presenting the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian in the Stanza della Segnatura (see previous post) and following the recent restoration, which allowed for a more thorough analysis, there appears to be more evidence to support this theory. The vault’s extensive areas of a single colour seem to reduce the volume usual in Raphael’s figures and although the monumentality of the figures and details such as the heads of the putti and that of God the Father conform with Raphael’s style, the colour scheme and the application of the colours does not. For instance, the well-preserved blue backgrounds are reminiscent of Lotto’s later fresco of Christ the Vine in Trescore’s Oratorio Suardi (Fig. 10).

Lorenzo Lotto, Christ the Vine, Capella Suardi, Trescore

10. Lorenzo Lotto, Christ the Vine, Capella Suardi, Trescore

Lorenzo Lotto, Heads from the Pandects, Stanza della Segnatura

11. Lorenzo Lotto, Heads from the Pandects, Stanza della Segnatura

In addition, the present condition of the Eliodoro vault corresponds with what we have seen in the Pandects: the colours are applied in layers rather than being modelled tonally and the pigments have carbonised less in the upper layers resulting in paint losses. The upper layers have become so brittle that mere rubbing of the surface has a considerable influence on their appearance.

Heads such as that of Jacob in Jacob’s Dream (Fig. 12) and those of the judges in the Pandects (Fig. 11) resemble each other in the way the faces are modelled by a kind of rouge applied to their cheeks on top of the base fleshtones. The painter created contours in a very personal and distinctive manner by leaving a fine, thin line of the grey plaster to appear between two areas of colour.

Lorenzo Lotto, Head of Jacob, Stanza di Eliodoro

12. Lorenzo Lotto, Head of Jacob, Stanza di Eliodoro

This is also evident when one compares facial tonalities and painterly treatment of, for instance, Lotto’s head of a putto from Moses and the Burning Bush and a Raphael putto from the Stanza della Segnatura (Figs. 13 and 14).

Glaring eyes underlined with red brushstrokes, such as those of the son embraced by Noah (Fig. 16) in the vault, also occur in the figure of Lotto’s Cimmerian Sibyl (Fig. 15) at Trescore.

It is characteristic of Lotto that all his children and angels are blond. This applies even to God the Father in the Noah scene, who is depicted with fair hair (see Fig. 2).

When did Lotto leave Rome?

If we accept that Lorenzo Lotto painted the vault of the Stanza di Eliodoro, that brings us the problem of the painter’s itinerary. From his early works which can be dated with certainty, either because he signed and dated them himself or because the contracts for them have survived, we know, for instance, that he started painting the Entombment of Christ for San Floriano in Jesi on 27 October 1511 and started work on the Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece (Fig. 17) for the church of Santo Stefano in Bergamo on 15 May 1513. This magnificent and monumental altarpiece took three years to finish: it is signed 1516. In fact, it was the largest altarpiece Lotto ever painted: its central panel, a Sacra Conversazione, measuring 520 x 250 cm.

Lorenzo Lotto, Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece, 1513-1516, San Bartolomeo, Bergamo

17. Lorenzo Lotto, Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece, 1513-1516, San Bartolomeo, Bergamo

Even at this size, three years seems rather long to complete an altarpiece. Was Lotto, having moved to Bergamo, summoned to Rome again in 1514 to assist Raphael on the Stanza di Eliodoro? Had he heard of Bramante’s death that year and had travelled to Rome on his own initiative in the hope of taking over direction from Raphael in the papal rooms? Or did he not leave Rome at all? Lotto’s signature on his dated pictures in Jesi and Recanati does not prove where they were painted, whether on site or in a Roman studio from where they were sent to their final destination as was done during the years when Lotto lived in Venice.

Until now, Lorenzo Lotto’s activity in Rome could be reconstructed only from the two payments for his work in the Stanze in 1509 and from a drawing attributed to him of the ancient sculptural group of Hercules and Antaeus in the Belvedere statue court. If Lotto intended from the start to paint the Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece in Bergamo, it meant that he must have returned to Rome in 1514, perhaps to collect his belongings and pack up his studio, and was engaged there briefly by Raphael to paint the Eliodoro vault, something that could be done in a relatively short time.

For some of the figures in the Colleoni Martinengo altarpiece Lotto seems to have drawn inspiration from Raphael’s design for the Eliodoro vault, but rather than relying on the finished mural, he may have used Raphael’s autograph preparatory sketches, especially that for Moses and the Burning Bush. If Lotto stayed in Rome, he presumably got to know the Stanze intimately between 1513 and 1516. He may even have used two drawings by Raphael of Victories from the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum (Fig. 18) for his pair of angels in the altarpiece, particularly their draperies and their bare legs (Fig. 19).

It is tempting to think that Lotto must have returned to Rome after he signed the contract in Bergamo, at least for a short period. If in fact it was he who executed the fictive tapestries on the vault and was therefore became, at least temporarily, a member of Raphael’s workshop, his deep knowledge of Raphael’s frescos for the Stanze is not surprising. Of course this is conjecture at this point. Further dedicate research in Rome’s archives or a chance archival find there might one day provide further answers.

One thing is clear: the collaboration with Raphael Santi left a lasting impression on Lorenzo Lotto. In the rivalry that existed between Michelangelo and Raphael, Lotto belonged firmly in the latter’s camp. Michelangelo’s frescos seem to have made little impression on him, nor, for that matter, did the antiquities and architecture of Rome, none of which appear in his post-Rome paintings and antiquities only as props in the portrait of the collector Andrea Odoni, no doubt at Odoni’s request. The only reference to Rome’s architecture in Lotto’s paintings is in a small panel depicting Saint Jerome (Fig. 22), which Lotto painted in Rome, probably in 1509 judging from its partially legible date. The large circular building in it has been identified as Castel Sant’ Angelo where the panel is still kept today. But the figure of the Saint is derived from Raphael’s reclining figure of Diogenes in the School of Athens fresco in the Vatican palace (Fig. 20) while the head appears based on Raphael’s Saint Jerome in the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament fresco (Fig. 21). Because of these rather self-conscious borrowings, I think Lotto intended the panel as a homage to Raphael.

Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1509, oil on panel 80.5 x 61 cm, Museo Nazionale di Castel s Sant' Angelo, Rome

22. Lorenzo Lotto, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, c. 1509, oil on panel 80.5 x 61 cm, Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’ Angelo, Rome

Selected literature:

For selected literature I refer to the previous post.


Lorenzo Lotto in Rome (1) – the case of the Pandects

Bernard Berenson in his nineties by Cecil Beaton, at the time of the second Lotto monograph, 1955

Bernard Berenson in his nineties by Cecil Beaton, ca. 1955

Some sixty years after the great connoisseur Bernard Berenson revived interest in the Italian painter Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556/7) in his pioneering study of 1895 and following the first great Lotto exhibition in 1953, he published his second monograph on the artist. In his words: “as illustrator he [Lotto] was more expressive, more psychological, more interpretative, more attentive to what was peculiar in situation and individual in personality than other Italian painters of his day”, an appraisal I fully reciprocate. One aspect frustrated Berenson: he could not explain how, after a gap of several years in the artist’s career from 1508 onwards, “[Lotto] emerged with his manner of painting surprisingly changed. From comparative dryness and sallowness, he has passed to a fluid vehicle and a gay, blond, almost golden tone.”

While Lorenzo Lotto’s life is extremely well documented with such unique personal documents as the thirty-nine letters he wrote in connection with the designs for intarsia for the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, his will, and the spese diverse (the account books he kept meticulously during the last twenty years of his life and which also contain many details about his personal life and character), it was not until around the publication of Berenson’s second monograph that documents were discovered in the Vatican Corsini Library pertaining to advance payments to the artist concerning his work on the frescos in the papal rooms, the Stanze. Berenson’s mystery was solved: the artist had been called to Rome.

Lorenzo Lotto’s “Libro di Spese diverse”, kept at Loreto

Lorenzo Lotto’s “Libro di Spese diverse”, kept at the sanctuary in Loreto where the artist spent the last years of his life as a lay brother

It has always been assumed that Lotto’s frescos in the Stanze were completely destroyed soon after they were painted because they were deemed inferior to Raphael’s. Nevertheless, there have been numerous attempts to identify Lotto’s hand in the Vatican or in other Roman decorations but his contribution has never been established convincingly. To these theories, the recent restoration of the Stanze added another although the catalogue of the last great exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome seems to ignore it. But for that exhibition every conceivable painting or altarpiece that could be removed safely or even unsafely was transported to Rome and since that would have been impossible with frescos it explains the lack of interest in Lotto’s murals, a fate they have suffered in most recent publications following exhibitions of the paintings.

Lorenzo Lotto exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, 2011

Lorenzo Lotto exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, 2011

Lotto’s Vatican commission

Lorenzo Lotto is not first and foremost remembered as a fresco painter but more for his highly individual religious paintings and his humane and empathic portraits. A native of Venice, something he stressed proudly all his life, he left the city for long periods to work elsewhere, mostly in the Marshes. The reason for this was presumably practical: once he had established his reputation there his popularity among the local nobility and clergy kept him busy throughout his life and even when he returned home for certain periods he shipped new altarpieces to these distant places from Venice. Yet to be commissioned for such a prestigious commission as the Stanze in the Vatican, even if he was to be part of a group of pan-Italian artists working under Raphael Santi, must also have been based on his work as a fresco painter. Unfortunately, no pre-Rome frescos by Lotto have survived.

Agostino Onigo monument, Treviso

Agostino Onigo monument, Treviso

The papal architect Bramante, who had been engaged in a project in the holy city of Loreto, a place of pilgrimage much favoured by Pope Julius II, and who may have seen Lotto’s altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in nearby Recanati is credited for having secured the painter’s commission at the Vatican. Bramante probably also saw frescos by Lotto in Treviso but these seem not to have survived. It has long been assumed that Lotto painted a pair of pages beside the tomb of Agostino Onigo in the church of San Nicolò, Treviso, but the majority of scholars have now rejected the attribution. Clearly Bramante was impressed with Lotto’s work, enough to recommend the painter to the Pope.

Recanati Poliptych. The original frame was lost as were the predellas, only one has survived in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. The current frame was made in 1912

Lorenzo Lotto, San Domenico Polyptych, 1506-8, Pinacoteca Comunale, Recanati. The original frame was lost as were the predellas, only one has survived in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum. The current frame was made in 1912

Lotto’s altarpiece for the church of San Domenico in Recanati (1506-1508) displays the compositional influence of Venetian painters of that time, for instance Bellini’s Sacra Conversazione for San Zaccaria in Venice, completed in 1505. The Pietà in the upper lunette recalls Carlo Crivelli’s renditions of the subject in its intimate pathos while the dark background of the Pietà and some of the figures such as Nicodemus recall the influence of Dürer whose art had a lasting influence on Lotto.

Yet there is a determined individuality here, for instance in the contrast between the pervasive melancholy and the amusing detail of the child angels in the lower foreground, who seem startled by the entrance of St. Dominic.

Angels, San Domenico Polyptych

The Stanza della Segnatura

In May of 1508 Michelangelo had started planning the frescos for the ceiling of the Sistine chapel and in the autumn of that year Perugino, Sodoma and Bramantino were engaged in Pope Julius II’s suite of private apartments. Probably shortly before, during the summer, Raphael, then a talented young artist, had arrived to paint the room that became known as the Stanza della Segnatura, at first largely with his own resources. He did not only establish himself at the highest artistic level in these frescos but also revealed his abilities for dealing with other artists and a demanding Pope while maintaining full control of the project.

The Jurisprudence wall in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, after recent restoration

The Jurisprudenc wall in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican, after recent restoration

Much of Lotto’s work in the Stanze della Segnatura has not survived, but it is certainly apparent that the left scene on the fourth or Jurisprudence wall is stylistically and technically different from Raphael’s fresco on the right side of the window. Consider, for instance, the lunette above the window where three of the Cardinal Virtues, Fortitude, Prudence and Temperantia, are evidence of Raphael’s accomplished and confident handling, a refined modelling of light and subtle shading of the idealised female figures.

Jurisprudence wall - virtues

Raphael Santi, Virtues

The scene of Gregory IX approving the Decretals to the right of the window shows Raphael’s brilliance at portraiture: none other than Pope Julius II, wearing his famous beard that he had started growing after his defeat at Bologna, modeled for Gregory IX. In contrast with these scenes, the scene on the left side of the window, Tribonian presenting the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian, makes an altogether different impression.

Raphael Santi, Gregory IX presents the Decretals

Raphael Santi, Gregory IX presents the Decretals

Clearly another artist than Raphael or his close collaborators was at work here. Some suggestions that have been put forward, however, have been discarded. For instance, since the Pandects seemed to have reminiscenses of the “Venetian manner”, Sebastiano del Piombo has been put forward as a candidate. But del Piombo came to Rome only when the Stanza della Segnatura was finished and his involvement would only be tenable if the fresco had been repainted by him at a later date. Although del Piombo is known to have carried out restoration work on the frescos after the Sack of Rome in 1527 there appears to be no technical evidence that the mural is a different one than the original fresco of 1511.

Another candidate that was put forward is the French glass-painter Guillaume de Marcillat who is documented as working in the Vatican in 1510. The argument against de Marcillat is that he only started to work in fresco some years later in Arezzo and at any rate recent studies of his style exclude him as a candidate.

The Pandects

Raphael chose an unusual but symbolic event for the scene which shows the Emperor Justinian receiving the Corpus Juris Civilis (which included a digest component, called “pandects”) from his trusted jurist Tribonian. This was an essential part of Justinian’s Roman law consolidation effort of 533 AD which was seen as a monumental contribution to law and order throughout Europe in the 16th century.

Tribonian presents the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian, attributed to Lorenzo Lotto

Tribonian presents the Pandects to the Emperor Justinian, attributed to Lorenzo Lotto

Lorenzo Lotto’s involvement in painting the Pandects seems to fit more convincingly than that of other candidates put forward. Lotto was paid 100 ducats on 9 March 1509 for unspecified work in the “upper rooms of he pope next to the upper library” and received another 50 ducats on 18 September 1509. Both payments indicate that he had been working in the Vatican for some time as part of the team of artists including Perugino, Sodoma, Bramantino, Johann Ruysch and, of course, Raphael, brought together to decorate the new suite of papal apartments, the Stanze. Lotto’s fresco technique changed very little over time which makes comparisons between the Pandects and his later frescos possible, such as those in the Capella Suardi in Trescore, the Marian Cycle in the church of San Michele al Pozzo Bianco in Bergamo and even the now much damaged frescos in Credaro.

The stylistic differences between the Pandects and the scene with Gregory IX on the other side of the window became more apparent during the most recent restoration. The Pandects appeared more damaged than the other frescos in the room, in part due to treatment with aggressive solvents in earlier restorations, but also because the volumes in this fresco seemed not to have been achieved through the modelling of different colours or tones of a colour (cangiante) as in the Virtues or the Approval of the Credentials but rather by the application of successive, fairly even layers of different tones one on top of another as becomes most evident in the faces. Due to this technique the upper layers of colour have fallen off in the course of time which resulted in losses that are more severe than in the other frescos which are less dependent on layering and therefore change less in depth. It is telling that the same losses occur in Lotto’s other surviving frescos executed in Trescore, Bergamo and Credaro.

Head of Justinian

Head of Justinian

The head of the Emperor Justinian in the Pandects, for instance, has been executed in thin, plain layers of colours finished with a few strokes of hatching added with the point of the brush – a technique that bears similarities to Lotto’s Suardi fresco cycle in Trescore or the badly preserved St Lawrence in Credaro where the flesh tones are built up with several layers of colour, one on top of another, with the contours giving the final definition.

Lotto employed broad areas of local colour in the figures in the murals at San Michele al Pozzo Bianco. Equally, in the Pandects, we see large panes of yellow, blue and dark red, contrasting with the far subtler colori cangianti (changing to a different, lighter, hue when the original hue cannot be made light enough or changing to a darker hue when the original hue cannot be made dark enough) employed by Raphael on the same wall.

Lotto seems to have treated frescos much the same as he would have a painting in oils, applying one layer over another so that, due to the chalky nature of the plaster, there is more wear than had he employed the medium to its full advantage. It was previously thought that the discrepancies in style between the Pandects and Gregory IV approving the Decretals was solely due to the first fresco’s poor state of preservation, and indeed some scholars have merely ignored this discrepancy, but given the techniques used it may point to Lorenzo Lotto as the author in which case we would have tactile proof of his involvement in the creation of the Stanze.

By any means that involvement would have been limited and Lotto cannot be credited as the inventor of the scene. Even though Raphael did not assume full command of the Stanze around 1513, his capacity to delegate was already apparent at the time when the Jurisdiction wall was painted. There is a compositional drawing in Frankfurt, largely executed in brush and wash and partially gone over in pen and ink, which relates to the figure group and which is thought to be a preparatory study by Raphael for the Pandects since there are significant differences between the drawing and the fresco such as the number of figures which was reduced in the latter, and changes to their hair and hats. At a later stage, with the composition fully worked out, Lotto would have been provided with a life-size cartoon for transferring the composition to the wall.

“A gay, blond, almost golden tone”

Coming back to Berenson and his wonder at the apparently overnight change in Lotto’s style after the years that could not be accounted for, the answer seems to be Raphael. Apart from the colour scheme of Lotto’s painting of the Transfiguration where, compared to his earlier work, the colours and overall tone are astonishingly bright, Lotto executed his Saint Vincent Ferrer in Recanati, of which only a damaged fragment survives, still deeply under Raphael’s spell. The Saint’s vigorous contrapposto and the unprecedented classical character of the flying angels seem a direct response to Raphael, while the ascetic appearance of the Saint is entirely in keeping with Lotto’s own artistic temperament. Even here he adds a quirky individualistic element: the putto on the left has his arms under the ascetic Saint’s robe.

Saint Vincent Ferrer, c. 1511, 265x1166 cm (cropped) San Domenico, Recanati

Saint Vincent Ferrer, c. 1511, 265×1166 cm (cropped) San Domenico, Recanati

In the next article we will move from the Stanza della Segnatura to the Stanza die Eliodoro to see whether it is tenable that some of Lorenzo Lotto’s frescos there survived, notably – for an artist who has been considered the painter par exellence  when it comes to painting carpets – a carpet in fresco.

Selected literature

  1. Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto, an essay in constructive art criticism, 1895
  2. Emma Zocca, “Le decorazioni della Stanza d’Eliodoro e l’opera di Lorenzo Lotto a Roma”, Rivista dell’istituto nazionale d’archeologia e storia dell’arte 2, 1953
  3. Bernard Berenson, Lorenzo Lotto, 1956 (English edition)
  4. David Alan Brown, Peter Humphrey, Mauro Lucco et al, Lorenzo Lotto – Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance, exhibition catalogue, 1997
  5. Peter Humphrey, Lorenzo Lotto, 1997
  6. Arnold Nesselrath, “Lorenzo Lotto in the Stanza della Segnatura”, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 142, No. 1162,  2000
  7. Arnold Nesselrath, “Lotto as Raphael’s Collaborator in the Stanza di Eliodoro”,
    The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 146, No. 1220, 2004
  8. Giovanni C.F. Villa et al, Lorenzo Lotto, exhibition catalogue, 2011

A Raphael study for the Transfiguration in the Rijksmuseum

In his Life of Raphael Giorgio Vasari movingly recounts the events immediately following Raphael Santi’s death in 1520:

As he lay dead in the hall where he had been working they placed at his head the picture of the Transfiguration which he had done for Cardinal de’ Medici; and the sight of this living work of art along with his dead body made the hearts of everyone who saw it burst with sorrow.

Vasari does not mention in how far the Transfiguration, Raphael’s last and perhaps most puzzling composition, was completed when the artist died. Until the painting was cleaned in 1972-76, scholars limited Raphael’s participation to the left lower group and attributed the right lower group and the upper section to Giulio Romano and Giovanni Francesco Penni respectively. The cleaning confirmed that the majority of the work was by Raphael and that assistants finished only the group at the lower right.

Raphael Santi, the Transfiguration,

Raphael Santi, the Transfiguration, c. 1518-20, Pinacoteca Vaticana

The painting presents two consecutive yet distinct narratives as recounted in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The upper register shows a radiant Christ who, with the prophets Elijah and Moses, appears in glory before the apostles Peter, James and John. In the lower register the other apostles (seen left) meet the family of a boy possessed (seen right) but in spite of the frantic pleas of the child’s family they fail to cure him. Their failure is not mentioned as such in the biblical text but is implied in the words of the boy’s father, who addresses Christ after he descended from the mountain: “And I brought him to your disciples and they could not cure him.” The meaning of the painting is perhaps most economically and eloquently expressed by Goethe:

The two are one: below suffering, need, above, effective power, succour. Each bearing on the other, both interacting with one another.

The kneeling female figure in Raphael’s Transfiguration – form and function

In his description of the painting which he termed Raphael’s “most beautiful and most divine work” Vasari somewhat unexpectedly refers to the kneeling female figure in the center foreground as “the principal figure in that panel.”

With her back to the viewer she kneels in a twisted contrapposto pose: her right knee forward and right shoulder back, left knee positioned slightly behind the right and her left shoulder forward, arms directed to the right and her face turned to the left. She offers a structural and compositional bridge between the family group gathered around the possessed boy on the right and the nine apostles on the left. Her spatial and tonal isolation from the surrounding figures and their apparent obliviousness to her stunning presence suggest that we should interpret this figure as different from the others. Jacob Burckhardt (1855) suggested that “the woman lamenting on her knees in front is as it were a reflection of the whole incident.”

The kneeling woman is Raphael’s most striking depiction of the figura serpentina (serpentine figure). Leonardo developed one of the earliest and most influential expressions of the serpentine figure in his now lost Leda, ca. 1504, which Raphael copied in a drawing upon his arrival in Florence.

Raphael, Leda and the Swan, c. 1507, The Royal Collection

Raphael after Leonardo, Leda and the Swan, c. 1507, The Royal Collection

Leonardo’s Leda assumes the serpentine pose by drawing her right arm across her chest, which then generates the opposing shift forward in her right hip and leg and the backward shift right. In a similar way Raphael’s female figure in the Transfiguration draws her left arm across her chest and brings her left shoulder forward while her head twists to the left.


Detail from the Expulsion of Heliodorus, 1512

Raphael altered the concept of the figura serpentina by including it in multi-figure narratives. In the Vatican Stanza d’Eliodoro, for example, in the fresco of the Expulsion of Heliodorus (1512), a woman is seen who is part of a group of bereft widows and who assumes a pose strikingly similar to that of the female figure in the Transfiguration. The latter, while not actively part of the group of apostles on the left nor of the group of frantic family members on the right, nevertheless intervenes in the narrative in that she bridges the two groups by directing the attention of the apostles to the sick boy. To the 16th century viewer of the altarpiece the importance of her role would have been apparent: her beauty suggests that she represents the manifestation on earth of the radiant Christ seen in the upper register. She thereby emphasises the message that the apostles fail to see the sick boy as a test of their faith which prevents them from being able to heal him.

Developing the image in the composition

As the earliest of the modelli from the studio that represent various stages in the Transfiguration Oberhuber identified a drawing that limits itself to the scene of the Transfiguration on the mountain, here taking place on a small hill.

Modello for the Transfiguration of Christ, pen and brown ink with white highlights on paper primed with dark brown wash, 40 x 27 cm, Vienna, Albertina

Raphael studio, modello for the Transfiguration of Christ, Albertina, Vienna

In this drawing the figure of the apostle kneeling in the foreground already suggests a figure pointing with both arms, although he is relegated to what would become the scene in the upper register of the painting. A later drawing attributed to Raphael’s assistant Giovanni Francesco Penni shows the scene with the possessed boy incorporated in the composition and the figure of a kneeling female figure in the foreground, pointing emphatically at the possessed child.

Attr. to Giovanni Francesco Penni, modello for the Transfiguration, Albertina, Vienna (b/w image)

Attr. to Giovanni Francesco Penni, modello for the Transfiguration, Albertina, Vienna (b/w image)

Weighed down by many and diverse commissions during the last years of his life, Raphael instructed and guided his assistants by providing detailed studies of several important figures, faces and hands in the composition. In order to clarify the figures’ postures and the various ways in which they are to be lit, full figures were shown naked.

Raphael studio, modello for the Transfiguration, Albertina, Vienna (b/w image)

Raphael studio, modello for the Transfiguration, Albertina, Vienna (b/w image).

Although no autograph compositional studies incorporating the kneeling woman survive, the third drawing, attributed to Rapahel’s studio, nevertheless provides an insight into what the artist envisaged. Here, the woman’s classical form has taken shape and, unlike in the second drawing, she communicates directly with one of the apostles as she does in the painting. The position of her right arm is already that of the painting, that of the left arm would undergo further changes as can also be seen in the Amsterdam drawing.

The Amsterdam drawing


Raphael Santi, Study for the Transfiguration, 1519-20, black and white crayon on grey-brown paper, Rijksmuseum

The Amsterdam drawing is executed in black crayon and there are traces of punched contours visible, for instance on the forehead and cheeks and the facial contours have been repeatedly corrected. The woman’s classical profile and muscular shoulder epitomise Raphael’s search for idealised feminine beauty. Because her arm crosses her face at a lower point, her profile is more pronounced than that of the woman in the painting. The drawing’s strong shadow parts were created with very fine parallel hatching and there are remnants of white highlights that contribute to the strong plasticity of the image. Her expression is softer, gentler than that of the kneeling woman in the painting: it seems to express sadness but also anticipation unlike the determined and intently burning gaze of her painted counterpart.

Raphael (?), Head of Pope Leo X, Chatsworth

Raphael (?), Head of Pope Leo X, Chatsworth

The function of the Amsterdam drawing is somewhat puzzling in that, in spite of the punch marks, the head in the drawing is not the same size as that of the woman in the painting, which makes it unlikely that it is a fragment of a cartoon (full-size preparatory design for an artwork in another medium). This she has in common with, for instance, the famous drawing of the head of Pope Leo X. The latter has had a rocky reception with authorship passing from Michelangelo to Sebastiano del Piombo to Giulio Romano to Raphael. Likewise, based upon the misconception that the figure in the painting was not by Raphael, the drawing in Amsterdam has at one time been attributed to Raphael’s assistant Giulio Romano but it has later been accepted as an autograph Raphael drawing by such authorities as Oberhuber and Shearman.

Travels of a drawing

Samuel Woodburn by Thomas Lawrence

Samuel Woodburn by Thomas Lawrence, c. 1820, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The first collectors’ mark on the Amsterdam drawing is that of the painter and collector Sir Thomas Lawrence who died in 1830. The first public auction in which the drawing featured was that of the Dutch King Willem II, held in The Hague in 1850. In the intervening years a peculiar chain of events occurred. Thomas Lawrence stipulated in his will that his collection of Old Master Drawings should be offered to the British nation. His friend, the successful art dealer Samuel Woodburn, set out to fulfil this wish but the mission became something of a curse as Woodburn was unable to sell the collection en bloc to the nation. In order to win over public opinion Woodburn organised ten exhibitions of the best works in the collection: the Ninth Exhibition, held in 1836, contained as many as a hundred drawings then attributed to Raphael.

King Willem II of the Netherlands in his private art gallery

King Willem II in his private art gallery, Jan van der Hulst, 1848, Historic Collection of the House of Orange-Nassau, The Hague

Private collectors were quicker to act than British public collections and what Woodburn had tried to prevent happened eventually in 1838 when the avid art collector, the Dutch Prince of Orange (the later King Willem II), bought fifty-two of the one hundred Raphael drawings that were on offer in the Ninth Exhibition, among which the Amsterdam drawing. When Willem II died unexpectedly in 1849 it was discovered that his art collecting habits had led him to accumulate huge debts and in order to redress this his art collection was hastily auctioned off in 1850. In part due to the lack of Dutch expertise on Italian art precious paintings and drawings were sold for a fraction of their worth. At the The Hague auction Woodburn bought back thirty-five of the eighty-four Raphael drawings on offer including the drawing now in the Rijksmuseum, featured as “No. 75, Étude de Jeune femme, largement exécutée, à la Pierre d’Italie.”

Via the British Gritton, Newton and Robinson collections the drawing returned to the Netherlands  to be included into the impressive drawings collection of Prof. Dr. van Regteren Altena, former director of the Prints and Drawings Department of the Rijksmuseum. In 1971 Van Regteren Altena generously donated the drawing to the Rijksmuseum, making it the only Raphael study of its kind in the museum’s collection.

Photograph taken by me in the Rijksmuseum on 14 January 2014, with Hasan Niyazi very much in my mind

Selected sources:

  1. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, English edition 1996.
  2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italienische Reise, first published 1787.
  3. O. Fischel, “Raphael’s Auxiliary Cartoons”, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, 1937.
  4. K. Oberhuber, “Vorzeichnungen zu Raffaels ‘Transfiguration.”‘ Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 1962.
  5. L.C.J. Frerichs, “Een studie voor Rafaëls ‘Transfiguratie’ voor het Rijksprentenkabinet”, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum, 1971.
  6. D. Rosand, “Raphael Drawings Revisited”, Master Drawings, 1988.