Renaissance Revolution - Raphael

October 18, 2010

Raphael's Madonna of The Meadow is the focus of this amazing program

I've lamented previously, there are not enough documentaries on Raphael! It seems like someone was listening. Recently, a new series titled Renaissance Revolution, hosted by Matthew Collings aired on BBC 2. The series will eventually also include episodes on Piero Della Francesca and the mind blowing work of Netherlandish artist Hieronymous Bosch.

The first program can be viewed via BBCs iPlayer, but this is of no use to people outside the UK. To redress this, I'm pleased to present the program below.

Collings' style is quite interesting. Perhaps not as involved in historical background as Andrew Graham-Dixon, he instead takes us on a journey into the actual techniques the old masters used. Those who have studied art in some form will be familiar with these concepts - those who haven't will enjoy seeing Collings zoom in, pan back and highlight the many wonderful little tricks employed by artists to bring their masterpieces to life. The deep zoom employed highlighting finer touches made me think of the way digital artists work, often using deep digital zoom to do details on their pieces, and then panning out to observe the overall effect.

Something that always delights me is learning something new about a work I thought I new a fair bit about! Collings achieved this for me in this program, highlighting that Michelangelo, depicted as grumpy philosopher Heraklitis in School of Athens, was never in the original drawing! It is suggested that Raphael added him in after being allowed a sneak peek at the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo's rival Donato Bramante. Fascinating stuff!

Of additional interest is why Raphael chose to do this? As outlined in a previous entry at 3PP, this fresco contains portraits of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael himself - who stands off in the corner smiling confidently at the viewer. Some view the portraits of the elder masters as an homage, whereas others like to view it as a swaggering gesture by the younger artist - showing that his style is the culmination of their preceding achievements in the art of composition. I like to think that there is probably a bit of both happening - deference mixed in with swagger.

 Michelangelo is famously missing from this preparatory drawing for School of Athens

I advise everyone to watch this program and avail yourselves to the amazing character of Raphael. I simply love that even as a young man he had a burning desire to learn, emulate and improve upon his peers and predecessors. It is very much a reflection of the scientific method being applied to the practise of art, which I personally find enthralling. It also makes me all the more perturbed at those talented miscreants, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for their childish choice of name.

Edit: BBC iPlayer is no longer showing this program, nor it is it available for purchase from their store. The introduction can be viewed below (full playlist here: link)


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wonderful! I love learning new facts about the artists and their techniques!

Unknown said...

Glad you enjoyed it Vicky! I hope I can get the Hieronymous Bosch episode up too. If you've never encountered his work before...prepare to be astounded!


Dr. F said...


I enjoyed the video on the Madonna of the Meadow. The title is arbitrary, however, since the painting actually depicts an episode (the meeting with the young Baptist) on the return from the flight into Egypt.

However, I'd like to give you a lead on the Stanza which should be of great interest to you in particular. Ingrid G. Rowland's essay, "The Intellectual Background of the School of Athens; Tracking Divine Wisdom in the Rome of Julius II," can be found in "Raphael's School of Athens," edited by Marcia Hall and published by Cambridge in 1997.

It is the best thing I have read on the Stanza. She argued that Raphael worked with the theological advisors of Julius II to create a "painted exhaltation of books of learning." The Stanza was an attempt to show that the three traditions of knowledge, the Old Testament, Greek and Roman antiquity, and the Pre-Greco-Roman traditions (Egyptian, Persian,, even Etruscan) all pointed to Christianity.

In Rowland's words, "Philosophy, by inquiring into matters higher than immediate human needs, had first sent the human mind in search of God." It's too bad that you didn't get to Rome to actually stand in the Stanza and see that the philosophers in the School of Athens are moving toward the depiction of the Eucharistic host on the opposite wall.

To me one of the most interesting features of the School of Athens is that Plato and Aristotle the founders of the two great competing philosophic systems are walking together in harmony toward the goal of all knowledge. When one thinks of the conflict going on at the time between Aristotelians and neo-Platonists, this reflects a remarkable attempt at synthesis.


Unknown said...

Great points Frank!

Also thanks for the heads up on a great resource!!

I love the attempt at synthesis too, the fact that this painting also includes Islamic Scholar Ibn Rushd(Averroes) is an even greater testimony to this fact.

With the isolation many people of Islamic faith(or simply heritage in my case) feel at the moment, seeing this recognition in a Christian work is a sign of hope for a time where people can be united in knowledge, not divided by ignorance.

Just another facet of why I am so enamoured of Raphael!

Kind regards

Simon said...

I made it about 5 minutes into the first program, but found it unwatchable. The music was so inappropriate and intrusive it completely detracted from (and sometimes drowned out) anything the presenter was trying to say.

Which is a pity, because I think there was probably a good program to be made about the renaissance. This isn't it.

Unknown said...

Hi Simon. Welcome to 3PP!

I actually liked some of the more ambient music.. but not the 60s tunes that made it in there - they just felt too out of place! I just assumed Collings is an old hippie :)

It's a shame you couldn't get more than 5mins through, music aside it's quite a unique way of looking at things! The Bosch episode is this Saturday!


Simon said...

Bosch. Expect to hear plenty of 1960's,/1970's prog rock, probably PFM, Goblin or Gentle Giant to go with the irritating drones and plink plink noises.

I left the room while my wife watched some more, but after a while even from two rooms away the sound was annoying enough for me to ask her if she could turn it off.

She wasn't greatly bothered by the request, and I was amused that the she asked how old the prgram was, assuming it was made sometimes in the 1980's. She commented that it all seemed a bit pedestrian compared to the sophistication of Andrew Graham-Dixon's offerings.

Unknown said...

@Simon - I'm all for pedestrian!

Strange soundtrack aside, I think the overall tone of the piece was something that is accessible to all. AGD is of course one of my favorites too, but there is something left out of his approach that Collings did really well.

Collings described this as a revolutionary time and 'the modern art of its day' Hence, looked at from that perspective perhaps, the soundtrack selection starts to make a bit of sense.

I'll gladly take Collings breaking down paintings into triangles over creepy Sewell prancing about Palaces any day, or my compatriot, the over-eating Mr Hughes! Those are two people who have no clue about engaging the average person who is interested in art, of which I am a proud constituent! I always walk away from their programs with a queasy feeling in my stomach, as opposed to just a ringing in my ears!


Art History Today said...

Great post H

I'm still not sure if Heraclitus is meant to be Michelangelo. I've always given it the benefit of the doubt.

Is it really the 'Flight'? But where's Joseph?

The soundtrack is weird- every thing from soul to Krautrock!

The question of the PRB and Raphael is addressed in the current Oxford "Pre-Raphs and Italy"- there's a good essay on it in the catalogue.

Best- David

Anonymous said...

Hi ttpers! I'd like to just point out that the Pre Raphaelites name wasn't an insult to Raphael, but rather his followers within the academy who took Raphael's formalistic innovations and codified them. This is what (to their eyes) caused the academics to become stiff and uninspiring. They also accussed them of borrowing to heavily from each other's work and recycling images (sir sloshua reynolds springs to mind, their words not mine). Now, I think the insult was unjustified, and if you look at alot of preraphaelite paintings what they're missing is a grounding in draftsmanship and this's something the academy would never have permitted. Also, a close look at the preraphaelites would show that they borrowed extensively from each others work. However some beautiful work arose from that group. My favourite being John William Waterhouse's "St Euliana", a really stunning piece of work!

My first post here on tpp btw :)
Have a good day!

Unknown said...

Cheers David and anyonymous :)

@David - Who else could it be?? it's a remarkable likeness, and posed so similarly to the Sistine figures!

@Anonymous - thanks for that extra detail. I will be coming back to the PRB and Raphael in future - Waterhouse is one of my favourites too.. really love 'The Magic Circle' in particular... it's magical!

Kind Regards

Dr. F said...

H and David:

In working on my interpretation of Giorgione's Tempesta as "The Rest on the flight into Egypt," I came to the realization that many depictions of the Madonna and Child had been mis-named. I don't believe that Raphael ever thought of painting a "Madonna of the Meadow," or that Leonardo thought he was painting a "Virgin of the Rocks." I would also guess that no renaissance artist ever set out to paint a "Madonna of Humility." I believe that this latter designation is used only because she is usually sitting on the ground.

I believe that all of these paintings represent an episode from the apocryphal legends about the flight into Egypt. In the flight genre a number of episodes were depicted besides the actual flight. In the 15th century the Rest on the Flight became very popular. In my research I have also shown that an encounter with robbers on the flight was depicted by Giorgione.

Eventually, the Holy Family returned to Judea and on the return journey, they met up with the young Baptist who had also escaped the murderous designs of King Herod by hiding in a desert cave or cavern with his mother, Elizabeth. The meeting of the two infants (usually nude) was depicted innumerable times. Sometimes it includes just Mary, Jesus, and John, sometimes Elizabeth is included. Joseph is not always included.

Here are some quotes from Anna Jameson, the best source for many of the legends of the Madonna.

p. 235. In a picture by Leonardo da Vinci…the Madonna, serious and beautiful, without either crown or veil, and adorned only by her long fair hair, is seated on a rock, On one side, the little Christ, supported in the arms of an angel, raises his hand in benediction; on the other side, the young St. John, presented by the Virgin, kneels in adoration.

p. 356. Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, “the rock opened by a miracle, and closed upon Elizabeth and her child;” which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern, and were concealed within it until the danger was over.
p. 366. It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph, in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these are introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been:
p. 392. In a Holy Family of four figures, we have frequently the Virgin, the Child, and the infant St. John, with St. Joseph standing by….
But the most frequent group of four figures consists of the Virgin and Child, with St. John and his mother, St. Elizabeth…Sometimes, the children are sporting together, or embracing each other…
p. 235.

Sorry for such a long comment.


Art History Today said...


I'm sure you're right. I know more about the flight iconography in the 17th century through my Phd research on Poussin. In the 17th century there are some v strange treatments of the Rest, especially in Poussin and Pietro Testa, probably inspired by Ludolph of Saxony.

I mainly learnt about the Rest through Sheila Schwartz's unpublished Phd thesis 'The Iconography of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt'. I haven't looked at that in ages, and I'm sure you know it. I'm assuming Schwartz has a view on Raphael's Madonna of the Meadow?

Best- David

David Packwood (AHT) said...

Re Michelangelo, I'm supposed I'm a bit wary of playing the spot the artist game in the picture. I seem to remember a BBC programme on Raphael, 2004-5 coinciding with the London exhibition; many top Raphael scholars were unconvinced by the identification. Still, I'll concede it might be, given that an unmistakable Leonardo appears as Plato. Is Raphael drawing parallels between painting and philosophy? That's another favourite research topic of mine.

Best- David

Unknown said...

Wonderful points Frank and David!!

@Frank - once again, your reasoning and skill at religious iconography are amazing to behold. Thanks for sharing!!

@David - I think you're most definitely onto something there! Considering the actual title of the work(Causarum Congnitio - Knowledge of Causes) - a basic philosophical premise - I think the Urbino wunderkind was being quite obvious in these parallels - particularly if he was depicting himself as Apelles, the most famous of classical painters, and his greatest contemporaries as philosophers!

Of course, I could just be biased in thinking this - I am remarkably fond of Raphael!

Also, I've hosted a good chunk of the other documentary you mentioned a few weeks back. It was interesting but I had more fun watching Collings I must admit.

Raphael - From Urbino to Rome

Kind regards

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