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Raphael at the National Gallery

A close up of The Tempi Madonna, c 1507-8

Ask anyone to name a Renaissance painter and the chances are it will be Michelangelo or Raphael. Raphael's paintings are synonymous with the Italian high Renaissance. The exhibition at the National Gallery goes well beyond his reputation as a flawless master painter and shows his full range and talent: a designer for print and tapestry, a poet, a draughtsman, architect and archeologist.

The eight chronological rooms work very satisfyingly, allowing progression to be shown while common themes bounce along from room to room. The first of three self-portraits in the exhibition is in the opening room and his moving final self-portrait – a bearded Raphael aged 36 (the year before he died) apparently anointing his successor – in the last room.

This is a rare opportunity to see old friends in the National Gallery brought together with pictures on loan from all over the world. Take 'The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist' owned by the National Gallery, hung alongside the painting of the same title from the National Gallery of Washington (painting nos. 27 & 28). They are so obviously bedfellows when seen next to each other, but it would be an extraordinary person who would be able to stand looking at the picture in Washington and recall exactly the National Gallery picture (or vice versa). They – alongside the preliminary drawing on the same wall – wonderfully illuminate each other.

The Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist ('The Alba Madonna') c.1509-11

What is also startling his ability to span from the grand scale to almost miniaturist scale. Stop, for example, and look very carefully at the tiny picture ('An Allegory', see below) in the first room. You will see a pontoon in the background and a bell tower, look closer and you can actually spot the bell. Such amazing detail in tiny scale! What is staggering and apparent in these rooms is that Raphael can work on both intimate and small scale and public and grand scale and yet the latter are still affectionate and delicate, never bombastic.

An Allegory ('Vision of a Knight') c.1504

Raphael's paintings are famous for their clarity and perfection; that he is a painter of unparalleled skill is in no doubt and there are masses of exhilarating examples of this in the rooms here, but there are also equally stunning drawings in this show. If in Raphael's time drawing was really a means to an end (studies for the real painting) to us now they seem almost more intimate. Also, it is fascinating to observe when Raphael is designing for others that he has to learn to simplify ideas in order to instruct others. The only section of the exhibition which felt marginally less successful is that dedicated to his architecture – maybe this is not surprising given the inherent difficulties in representing this in a gallery room spaces.

We were blown away by this show. This is possibly a one-off opportunity to see such a wide-ranging display of this prodigy's extraordinary creativity.


National Gallery until 31 July

Anya Waddington 8 April 2022


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