Did you hear about the record-setting Raphael that was sold yesterday? Following a strenuous battle between bidders, ‘Head of a Young Apostle’ was sold for $47.8 million at Sotheby’s, London (check out their video about it) for Chatworth House in Derbyshire, one of the world’s greatest Old Master Drawings collections. The price was almost three times the pre-sale low estimate. Artdaily.org reports that Gregory Rubinstein, Worldwide Head of Old Master Drawings at Sotheby’s, said “A number of the world’s greatest collectors stepped up tonight in recognition of the genius of Raphael and the extraordinary beauty of this drawing with its exceptional provenance.”

Head of a Young Apostle, by Renaissance artist Raphael

Head of a Young Apostle, by Renaissance artist Raphael

It’s no surprise that so many people stand in awe of Raphael’s exceptional abilities and his remarkable artwork. ‘Head of a Young Apostle’ shows a sketch for what would become one of the key figures (the first apostle on the left, if you’re looking) in Raphael’s famous Transfiguration – a work which took pride of place hanging above the artist’s head after his death when his body was laid out in state in his studio, and which now belongs to the Vatican Museum. There’s a story behind the Transfiguration, too – one which can only increase an art lover’s interest and appreciation for the work. Agora Gallery’s Registrar, Chiara Mortaroli, shares that story with us here.

We think of ourselves as in many ways very removed from the past, and the centuries that divide us from the Renaissance seem to separate us utterly from the way of life that was common then. Yet the art of that period continues to fascinate and charm the modern viewer, and by examining pieces from that time more closely, we can also learn how similar the emotions and human interactions they represent are to those experienced today. This tale of rivalry, friendship and fine art is a perfect example of this intriguing exercise.

Did you know? by Chiara Mortaroli

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of art history is the continual possibility of discovering the unexpected details that lie underneath the surface of some of the best known masterpieces of a period. No time can be a better example of this potential than the Renaissance, a period during which artists mostly worked on commission, creating specific pieces which had been requested by a wealthy or influential patron. An intriguing instance of how a painting can symbolize a whole hidden story is the example of Raphael’s Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus painting by Sebastiano del Piombo, which is now part of the collection of the National Gallery of London.

Transfiguration, by Renaissance artist Raphael

Transfiguration, by Renaissance artist Raphael

Sebastiano del Piombo was born in Venice, one of the first cities to adopt the new Flemish technique of oil painting, and he wasted no time in establishing himself as one of the foremost practitioners of the new technique. His talent and finesse quickly made him one of the most respected and sought-after painters of his time, and once he had moved to Rome he received a regular flow of commissions from important public figures including art patrons, cardinals and even popes.

He also came to the attention of Michelangelo, then 41 years old. During this period of his life, Michelangelo was forced to share his fame with the younger artist Raphael, a rivalry that soon came to play a part in the relationship between Sebastiano and Michelangelo, who decided to take the Venetian artist under his wing. The rivalry came to its head in the story behind the Transfiguration and the Raising of Lazarus.

In 1516, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the man who was to become Pope Clement VII, requested that both Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphael design a big altarpiece for his Episcopal Palace at Narbonne Cathedral in France. Sebastiano was assigned to exercise his ingenuity through the topic of the Raising of Lazarus, while Raphael was told to focus on the Transfiguration.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Renaissance artist Sebastiano del Piombo

The Raising of Lazarus, by Renaissance artist Sebastiano del Piombo

From our present distance, this simply looks like the catalyst for two wonderful pieces of artwork, works that are still popular today. But at the time, this was the perfect opportunity for Michelangelo to assert his artistic supremacy. If he could step in and help Sebastiano to win the challenge, he would effectively undermine his rival, Raphael. To do this, he aimed to combine his own excellent anatomic drawing technique with the perfect colorist gift of his friend.

Michelangelo’s touch is commonly recognized in the preparatory drawing for the Lazarus in Sebastiano’s panel. The physicality and the monumental tension that runs through Lazarus’ muscles directly recalls Michelangelo’s own models. The influence is far too noticeable to be passed over: Vasari notes in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ that the painting: “was counterfeited and painted with supreme diligence under the direction of Michelangelo, and in some parts from his design.

This means that not only is the work aesthetically appealing, compellingly beautiful and in the style that we have come to associate with that time and particularly with the influence of Michelangelo – it actually benefited directly from Michelangelo’s advice, ideas and even sketches. This adds new interest and mystery to the finished work, not least because it links it to a story of artistic rivalry that continues to fascinate scholars and art lovers today.

 

Drawing of Lazarus and attendants by Michelangelo, which Sebastiano used for the painting.

Drawing of Lazarus and attendants by Michelangelo, which Sebastiano used for the painting.

Ultimately Sebastiano was the first one to finish and consign the work to the committee. Soon afterwards, Raphael suddenly passed away at the premature age of 37, leaving his Transfiguration to be completed by his helpers. Still a remarkable piece, however, it remains one of the great artworks of the Renaissance period. Nonetheless, not long afterwards, the honor of completing the altarpiece was granted to Sebastiano, who soon saw his Raising of Lazarus being transported to Norbonne, while his rival’s stunning masterpiece was located in the church of S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.

This lively episode is still the object of open discussion today, and the continued studies of the surviving preparatory drawings allow us to keep hoping for new discoveries, fresh aspects of and further testimonials to the lives of these well-loved masters of art history.

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