Wednesday, 13 July 2022

Raphael and the Renaissance

 I have a book which was first published in 1932 called Through the Eyes of the Masters. It was written by David Anrias which is the pen name of someone called Brian Ross, and it purports to be telepathically received communications from the Theosophical Masters on various subjects. It's an intriguing book but I'm not convinced any more than I am convinced by the Theosophical Masters themselves though I do find Theosophical teachings interesting albeit with quite a few reservations, the chief of which, of course, being the diminishment of Christ. 

Anyway, one of these communications is from someone known as the Venetian Master who, we are told, was the painter Paolo Veronese in a previous life. Maybe. But he says something about Renaissance art which came to my mind recently and I will quote it here. He says that "the religious element was imposed upon the consciousness of the painter by extraneous conditions rather than arising from real spiritual experience. Such religious scenes and emotions as he attempted to convey were usually conventional and stereotyped though exquisitely painted in the tradition of the period."

I was reminded of this because on Monday I went to the National Gallery in London to see the current exhibition on Raphael. It was far too hot for such an escapade which involved me walking a couple of miles in the midday sun with temperatures of 31 degrees (87 in old money) but that's another story. The point I wish to make is that I found the paintings in the exhibition, against expectations, rather dull. I went through the whole exhibition in about 15 minutes before cheering myself up with some 17th century Dutch landscapes in the main gallery which were more to my taste.

What's the problem here? For me it is captured by the quote above. The paintings were mostly of religious subjects and they were indeed exquisitely painted. But I found them quite uninspiring to look at. The faces were bland and conventional and the general depiction of the subject had no depth or feeling. I was surprised because I thought I liked Raphael. There was a reproduction of The School of Athens there and that was impressive but the great majority of pictures had nothing to say (in my view). I'm sure they are technical masterpieces but that is not enough if they don't use that mastery to offer something more, and for me they just don't.

When I was young and more interested in art than I am now I appreciated the pre-Raphaelites. I couldn't remember what it was they didn't like about Raphael so I looked it up. Wikipedia tells me that they believed the "classical poses and elegant compositions of Raphael were a corrupting influence" on art. I suppose this means he favoured style over substance and that is more or less what I felt on my visit.

I may just have been in the wrong frame of mind. It was very hot and shortly before my visit I had eaten a stale croissant washed down with an over-priced cup of bad coffee. But that's not all there was to it. I enjoyed the Dutch landscapes and still lifes (lives?) I saw afterwards. These seemed to have a lot more depth to them and really capture something of the inner truth of the subject. Raphael's art has a certain serenity and is undoubtedly exquisite but that word implies a surface level bland beauty and that is what I saw in his work. Perhaps the problem was the lack of variety when so many are seen together and he might be better appreciated if one just saw one or two paintings in which case the smooth perfection might not pall.

The Madonna of the Pinks. A beautiful painting but could it also be rather bland?

The Renaissance was a restoration of Classical humanism. When it treated religious subjects it played down the hieratic quality you find in medieval art. It brought them closer to the everyday human but by removing distance it also lost the sense of the sacred. I don't feel about Raphael as I feel about Leonardo but nor do I feel his painting has any of the spiritual intensity of, say, Albrecht Durer to take an almost exact contemporary, and as far as the pictures in the exhibition go he well illustrates the spiritual loss incurred by Renaissance humanism.


Bruce Charlton said...

A good reflection.

".I may just have been in the wrong frame of mind." - Possible, but on the other hand, the long walk in the intense heat, and unpleasant nourishment, gave the trip a quality of Pilgrimage; which might reasonably have been expected to induce a Proper frame of mind. The fact that it didn't probably counts against Raphael, rather than for him.

I don't have any knowledge of Raphael. For some reason, I have never been interested enough by the art of that time and place to make sufficient effort, just as I have never stirred myself to read any of the writers. I was always more interested and attracted by the medieval.

William Wildblood said...

The Renaissance is what distinguishes Western civilisation from other civilisations so it was a step forwards in some respects but that came with the spiritual loss that has brought us to where we are today. A necessary phase for our evolution but with some very bad side effects that simply have not yet been addressed and have now taken over completely.

JMSmith said...

Next time you stagger through eighty-seven degree heat, spare a thought for those of us in Texas, where each day has peaked between 101 and 105 for a couple of weeks now. And the nearest art gallery is 100 miles down the road! But I agree with what you say about Raphael. It doesn't "move" me in the slightest degree. I don't know anything about Raphael as a person, but I think religious art by non-believers always fails sooner or later. Technical virtuosity may take people in for a long time, but one day people realize that this picture is a demonstration of expert painting and not a vision of the divine. If that is unfair to Raphael, we can draw the lesson that transcendental symbols that work in one age may not work in another.

It is interesting that you took more interest in the landscapes and still lives (should that be still-life?) I would as well. I much prefer realistic representation in paintings of that sort. But my preference in religious paintings is for a degree of abstraction. Not horrible "picnic litter" paintings, but paintings that represent religious subjects as visibly different that the everyday world. It may be that people in the past needed paintings that helped them believe in the incarnation, whereas we (or at least I) need paintings that help me believe in transcendence.

William Wildblood said...

Here in England the temperature is supposed to reach 38/100 tomorrow and the government has practically declared a national emergency. We are being told by earnest politicians and media figures to drink lots of water (who knew?) and not to travel unless it is urgent. No doubt in a couple of weeks we will be complaining about the rain.

I do agree that a good painting should be a window to a higher world. Some of the landscapes I saw did seem to have a little of that quality. Then, of course, much modern art is a window to Hell.