The National Gallery reminds the world of a great painter, John Westbrooke writes

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Raphael was once hailed as the finest of all painters, up there with Leonardo and Michelangelo. When a group of Victorian artists wanted to turn the clock back, they called themselves Pre-Raphaelites, not Pre-Leonardoites. And yet somehow his star has faded. The National Gallery’s new exhibition should restore his reputation as one of the original Renaissance men.

The son of a painter, he lived from 1483 to 1520, his career later chronicled by the writer Giorgio Vasari. His remarkable talent is visible right from the start: for his first known commission, at the age of 17, he was described as a master, not an apprentice. The earliest work on show here is Head of a Boy, a chalk portrait, maybe a self-portrait, from about 1498, beautifully spare, so faint it’s hardly there: he would have been 15 or so.

Another, better known self-portrait from the Uffizi in Florence is on display. He’s clean shaven, long hair, long neck, and a typical painter’s cap – a soulful 23-year-old turning his head to the right to look at the camera. A further decade on, he paints Bindo Altoviti in similar fashion – so similar it was once believed to be another self-portrait – a handsome, sexy banker in his 20s, though this time there’s more light and shade involved, probably because the painter had been studying Leonardo’s work.

One of his last paintings, though, shows a different Raphael. It was finished not long before his untimely death at 37. (The exhibition was intended to mark the 500th anniversary but was postponed by Covid.)

The come-hither look has gone. He’s acquired a Christlike beard and he’s standing calmly behind another man, his assistant Giorgio Romano: one hand on Romano’s shoulder, the other invisible but apparently supporting Romano’s own, as if to commend him to the viewer as his right-hand man and successor. (Romano did go on to be a painter and architect, well enough known to get a mention in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale, but he was no Raphael.)

There are other portraits here: a famously gloomy Pope Julius II, his white beard grown to mark the loss of Bologna in battle; Raphael’s friend the humanist Baldassare Castiglione in grey fur; and most notably Portrait of a Woman (“La Fornarina”), a woman wearing a blue and yellow turban, an arm band reading “Raphael”, an amused sidelong smile and not much else.

The model may have been the painter’s mistress Margarita Luti, who was a baker’s daughter (which “fornarina” means, but with overtones of “loose woman”) – and some even think it may have been by Romano, though that seems unlikely. Vasari claimed Raphael died of excessive lovemaking, and he left money for her.

For all his skill as a portraitist, the most common subjects, and commissions, of the day were still religious. At 20 or so he painted St Sebastian – normally portrayed as being martyred by being shot with arrows. But he survived, and Raphael’s vision has him fully recovered and finely dressed, contemplatively holding an arrow as if it were a paintbrush.

There are crucifixion scenes, saints slaying dragons, and John the Baptist preaching. But Raphael is perhaps most famous for his tender Madonnas, and there’s a room full of them here. They all depict motherly love for the infant children (young John the Baptist is in many of them too) but there’s no happy laughter between them. Though Raphael’s work is often bright and clear, without the dark shadows that characterised the work of painters like Caravaggio, it’s as if they all know how the baby’s life on Earth is going to end, and settle for serenity at best. Raphael lost his own mother at the age of eight, and his father three years later, so maybe we can detect a yearning for family.

The Ansidei Madonna is the most rigid of them: mother and child sit on a throne under a canopy, studying a Bible-like book; the Baptist, here a young man, holds a cross in one hand and points to Christ with the other.

But other paintings are much less formal, though the Virgin is always dressed in blue for Heaven and red for her son’s blood. Sometimes the couple are indoors, holding carnations (Madonna of the Pinks), or he’s twisting in her lap (Bridgwater Madonna). But the loveliest are set outdoors, where the shadows over the boy’s future are partly dissipated in daylight.

In the Tempi Madonna, Mary clutches him to her, one hand behind his back, the other under his bottom, just as most mothers hold their babies. In the Madonna of the Palm, which might be set during the family’s flight to Egypt, Joseph hands his son some flowers. That’s a tondo (circular painting), as is the Alba Madonna, in which Mary sits in a green meadow, elbow on a tree stump, book in one hand and baby in the other reaching out to take the Baptist’s cross.

“Renaissance man” has come to mean “being good at lots of things”: Michelangelo was more sculptor than painter, and an architect too; Leonardo made maps, drew up plans for helicopters and diving suits, and dissected bodies for study. But though Raphael is by far best known for painting, the exhibition makes clear that he too had a wide range of skills; Vasari called him a “universal artist”.

He was a fine draughtsman, learning from his contemporaries: a drawing of Leda and the Swan is pretty much a straight copy of Leonardo’s work (the latter now lost), and Study for a Portrait of a Young Woman is clearly based on the Mona Lisa, though this time the artist is using it as an inspiration rather than a textbook. Also included is what may be the first study of a female nude since the classical age; most artists stuck with male models.

In addition there are designs for tapestries, stage sets, even a villa. Architecture is hard to exhibit in a museum, but there’s at least a large model of the facade for a palazzo he designed. Likewise the School of Athens, a fresco he painted for Pope Julius, can’t be here but there’s a blow-up, almost life-size, in which you can see Leonardo, posing as Plato, in the middle, a pensive Michelangelo in the foreground (Raphael got on well with Leonardo, but not with Michelangelo), and another self-portrait peeking out from the far right.

As an aside, he was interested in archaeology too: in a letter, he regretted the destruction of Rome’s ancient buildings, and started work on a plan of the classical city. And all this in a life cut short. Leonardo died at 67, Michelangelo at 88: what might Raphael have achieved if he’d lived that long?

Raphael is at the National Gallery, London, until 31 July. £24 weekdays, £26 weekends; concessions available. Book online.

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