Really proud of this paper. I’ve had this professor before and she has never given me any constructive criticism about my writing or a grade even close to the one I received for this paper (48.5/50). She actually dinged me several points once because she didn’t agree with what I wrote. And this is the first paper that she has really liked and I think it says a lot about how passionate I am about art and its history. I know it is long, but please take the time to read. It’s not a complete bore, I promise lol. The following essay is in regards to the two altarpieces above. Feel free to give me feedback. Thanks!
Raphael: The Entombment
With artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo paving the way for new standards in art, there began the transition from art as a static medium to a dynamic one during the High Renaissance. The mode of telling a story no longer rested in rhetoric but rather in painting where realism and illusionism took place of poetry. Artists began evaluating ancient works of art as inspiration for the dynamic productions that would contribute to this new transition. The combination of story and calculating details of painting culminate in Raphael’s Entombment through his execution of geometrical composition, application of light and color to convey realism, and portrayal of human emotion as more than a temporal event.
One of the features that make Raphael’s work relatable to his contemporaries is the quotations of previous works of art, specifically ancient art. None is more obvious than that of the Meleagar sarcophagus that Raphael surely would have seen or known during this time. Raphael uses Meleager, an ancient fallen Greek hero, as a classical body type from which to model the dying Christ who the audience would understand as their fallen hero. Raphael clearly reproduces Meleager’s de-energized arm to convey a sense of lifelessness, bringing the convincing sense of a body full of drooping “dead” weight. Jesus’ languid body shares a physical experience with the figures holding him by creating a rhythm of undulating lines that draw the viewer’s eyes from his head to his toes. His body becomes an expression of the group, uniting the shifting figures in a tight composition. It grounds the painting in a historical context but is still very relatable to the viewer. Raphael further dramatizes the weight of Jesus’ body with the figures holding him. The tension in their muscles in the way they seem to heave Christ’s body and the strain of the cloth that is carrying his weight depicts the clear difficulty of their task. Raphael’s preliminary drawings of nude figures define the artist’s intent of twisted, angular bodies. The torsion in their bodies and the craning of their necks highlight Raphael’s meticulous attention to detail of the human body, with each muscle jutting out from the stress put upon it. This same detail is seen with the men carrying Meleager’s feet in the way he is hampered down with his weight, struggling to meet the physical demands of holding such a heroically large body. The Virgin echoes Jesus’ pose as she herself falls downward as she faints. Her de-energized arm is flung over another Mary’s shoulder for support while she herself is twisting in a serpentine pose just to catch the Virgin. It is apparent that the Meleager relief lends inspiration as well as a model of a realistic representation of a dead body.
Raphael’s Entombment is most comparable to Perugino’s Lamentation. Though one is quick to point out the similarities in both works, there are more stark differences between them. One way they are similar is in their composition. Raphael borrows from his master the frieze technique that is evident in the Lamentation and other works such as Christ giving the Keys to St. Peter. In the Perugino, there are definitive layers of figures that flank both sides of the Christ in the center. There is a distinguish frieze of figures in the foreground consisting of the three Maries and Christ, highlighting the figures most important in the story. The second frieze of figures can clearly be identified as mourners and other followers of Christ. The whole scene is then framed by a bleak countryside with rolling hills and homes in the background. The linear depiction of the story is reflected in the figures’ static poses and Jesus as the focal point of the piece. While Raphael does organize his figures in friezes, it is far more dynamic than Perugino’s. Although there is horizontality to it, figures appear to be in constant motion, giving a varying degree of where they stand in the friezes. For example, Mary Magdelene can be understood as part of the second frieze of figures because she is behind Christ. But because she is holding his hand and interacting with the action in the first frieze, the viewer can also understand her to be part of that group as well. Another example is found in the three Mary’s. Their recessed placement due to the Virgin’s backward fall creates the illusion of a third frieze, but the Virgin’s knees are actually lined up with that of Mary Magdelene who is in the second frieze. Instead of Christ uniting the two parts of the composition, the young man at Jesus’ feet becomes part of the focal point as his shoulders angle into and enter our space. The angularity of the poses complements the figure’s movements, drawing the viewers’ eyes across the picture plane.
Aside from composition, Perugino and Raphael differ in their use of light and color. Perugino’s Lamentation has a more somber tone which is reflected in the muted colors in the figures’ robes and emphasized in the bleak, gray sky. There are many more brown hues and tinges of black throughout the composition compared to Raphael’s where bright colors do well to softly contrast with the flesh tones of the figures. Where Perugino lacks in defining the human body with shade, he makes up for in costume. Each figure is carefully detailed in their garment, each shaded particularly to emphasize the convincing space they inhabit. Raphael uses light and shadow to convey depth and space as it pertains to movement. Everyone is actively participating in the scene so there is a varying degree of color throughout. In Perugino’s, the colors don’t bring any sense of life. Raphael alters this by really capturing the colors that delineate the dead Christ among the other figures. In the Raphael, Christ limp body is tinged with green as his body slowly decays. The Virgin turns white as a sheet as she swoons from the overwhelming grief of her dead son. Mary Magdelene’s rose flesh against Christ’s deteriorating hand presents the viewer with an eerie realism between the lifeless and the living. Where Raphael lacks in detail, he makes up for in the chiaroscuro among the figures as they seem to move across the painting.
The characteristic that makes Raphael’s work unique is the sense of istoria or story. In the Perugino, it is clear that the scene is the moment after the deposition where Jesus is mourned. It is a more demure painting in that everyone seems to display the same flat emotion of grief and despair. It is completely understood as a religious piece. Raphael differs in that his piece is a narrative that blurs the sequential and temporal elements of the story. It is the deposition, the lamentation and the entombment, all intertwined in one scene giving the story a sort of beginning, middle as well as an end. The hill of Golgotha in the background at the right sets up the narrative. The presence of the ladder on the cross makes the deposition seem ever more present, as if the moment still had not passed. The instance that Raphael depicted is the transition from the lamentation to the entombment. This is evident in Raphael’s preparatory drawing where the Virgin is standing up or kneeling down still mourning the death of her child. He changes this to a fainting Virgin perhaps to show her very own transition from an inactive state of mourning to severe energy-draining distress. Atalanta would have been able to align the grief the Virgin felt with that of her own son who also died due to betrayal. In this respect, the altarpiece is not only religious, but devotional as well. Christ’s body not only becomes the phyical representation of the wafer during communion but also becomes the visual incarnation of Atalanta’s son, heightening the emotional impact of the altarpiece.
The sequence of events would have been a challenge for Raphael since a series of stories like the Passion would have been more fitting on a wall, rather than an altar. It is in his combination of stories that give his particularly Entombment life. The significant change of subject from a Lamentation to an Entombment affects the character of the painting on the whole because it changed from a more iconic Pietà type subject with more narrative interest. Unlike the Pergugino, each figure is engaged with each other, helping to tell the story as it unfolds. The two figures carrying Christ fight gravity as it pulls the body inertly to the ground while they lift it up, moving forward into the tomb at the same time. Witnessing this, the Virgin collapses in sorrow as she sees her only son being borne away into his eternal grave. The energy from these two groups radiates throughout the composition. Even St. John ardently looks upon in a weeping manner, hands clasped as he too witnesses the pitiful site. Figures strain backwards to maintain composure such as that of Nicodemus, the Mary holding the Virgin, and the man holding Christ’s feet. There is no one part of the composition where action does not take place. Even the figures on Golgotha in the background are engaged in a conversation about how to remove the cross. There is something about touch that is central to the human condition. Mary Magdelene’s faith and love does not waiver even in death as she holds Christ’s hand and head for the last time, symbolizing her utmost devotion and extreme reverence for him. All figures move as a unit and whose simple actions add to the overall breathtaking effect the altarpiece would have generated.
Raphael’s Entombment is unique in its narrative content, application of color and light to convey realism, and use of a geometric pattern to depict dynamism. The combination of ancient relief and Perugino’s techniques provide a sense of cohesion and unity between the past and the present. The concentration of emotion grounds the viewer into the real world as well the metaphysical one along with Christ. Raphael creates a new excitement in painting that would influence his contemporaries and art itself in the coming periods of the Renaissance.