Re-examining the Vision of Ezekiel

June 10, 2011

 Re-examining the Vision of Ezekiel

In a recent post at Three Pipe Problem, I read of the controversy currently raging in Italy over the authenticity of a Raphael painting known as the Vision of Ezekiel now in the Pitti Palace in Florence. The question of whether this painting was by Raphael or one of his associates was of lesser interest, but as I read on another question came to mind.

It would appear that the subject of the painting has been misunderstood ever since Giorgio Vasari mentioned it in his biography of Raphael.

Here is Vasari's account:
At a later period, our artist painted a small picture, which is now at Bologna, in the possession of the Count Vincenzo Ercolani. The subject of this work is Christ enthroned amid the clouds, after the manner in which Jupiter is so frequently depicted. But the Saviour is surrounded by the four Evangelists, as described in the Book of Ezekiel: one in the form of a man, that is to say; another in that of a lion; the third as an eagle; and the fourth as an ox. The earth beneath exhibits a small landscape, and this work, in its minuteness—all the figures being very small—is no less beautiful than are the others in their grandeur of extent.

Vasari said that the subject of the painting is “Christ enthroned amid the clouds.” He did mention that Christ was surrounded by the four animals that Ezekiel saw in his vision. Even though the painting called to Vasari’s mind the vision of Ezekiel, the artist, whoever he was, must certainly have had a different vision in mind.

The vision in this painting is the vision of St. John from the Book of Revelation (Apocalypse). Let’s just compare the two visions. Here is the account from the book of the Prophet Ezekiel:

Ezekiel 1:1
As I was among the exiles on the bank of the river Chebar, heaven opened and I saw visions from God...
Ezekiel 1: 4-12
A stormy wind blew from the north, a great cloud with light around it, a fire from which flashes of lightning darted, and in the center a sheen like bronze at the heart of the fire. In the center I saw what seemed four animals. They looked like this. They were of human form. Each had four faces, each had four wings. …As to what they looked like, they had human faces, and all four had a lion’s face to the right, and all four had a bull’s face to the left, and all four had an eagle’s face. Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body;… Their wings were spread upward; each had two wings that touched, and two wings that covered his body...
Ezekiel 1: 13-14.
Between these animals something could be seen like flaming brands or torches, darting between the animals; the fire flashed light, and lightning streaked from the fire. And the creatures ran to and from like thunderbolts.

The animals are in Ezekiel’s vision but there is no God or Christ enthroned among them. Ezekiel’s vision found its way into the Book of Revelation, a book replete with imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures. Here is St. John’s vision (Jerusalem Bible).

Revelation 1: 9-13.
My name is John…I was on the island of Patmos for having preached God’s word and witnessed for Jesus; it was the Lord’s day and the Spirit possessed me, and I heard a voice behind me, shouting like a trumpet, “Write down all that you see in a book…"
Revelation 4: 1-8.
Then, in my vision, I saw a door open in heaven and heard the same voice speaking to me, the voice like a trumpet, saying, “Come up here: I will show you what is to come in the future.” With that, the Spirit possessed me and I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne, and the Person sitting there looked like a diamond and a ruby….In the center, grouped around the throne itself, were four animals with many eyes, in front and behind. The first animal was like a lion, the second like a bull, the third animal had a human face, and the fourth animal was like a flying eagle. Each of the four animals had six wings and had eyes all the way around as well as inside...

In John’s vision God the Creator, “the One” sitting on the throne in the midst of the four creatures, is the most prominent figure. Vasari identified the figure as Christ but the figure more closely resembles Michelangelo’s images of God the Father in the Sistine chapel. Only later in John’s account would the Lamb join the One sitting on the throne.

In the Vision of Ezekiel the small figure on the left receiving the vision must then be identified not as Ezekiel but John, exiled on the isle of Patmos. It is hard to tell but he seems to be on an island facing a broad expanse of sea rather than in a crowd of people at the bank of the river Chebar.

detail from Vision of Ezekiel

Some scholars have argued that there is a companion piece to the Vision of Ezekiel that did not find its way back to Italy after the fall of Napoleon. In his study of Raphael Jean-Pierre Cuzin discussed a small oil on panel of the Holy Family.

The kinship in style and execution of the Small Holy Family and the Vision of Ezekiel in the Pitti Palace at Florence, which have the same dimensions is striking: the rounded, thick-set bodies, strongly modeled by black shadows and lively touches of light, and the vigorous impasto execution, invite one to see an identical hand in both pictures—that of Penni, for Konrad Oberhuber. Others have more often thought of Giulio Romano. The Vision of Ezekiel, unlike the neglected picture in the Louvre, counts among Raphael’s celebrated works; it is identified with a picture described by Vasari at Bologna in the house of Count Ercolani.

The Small Holy Family is also a misnomer. It is actually a depiction of the encounter of Mary and the infant Jesus on their return from the flight into Egypt with her cousin Elizabeth and the infant John the Baptist. With or without St. Joseph this legendary meeting was a very popular subject since it marked the initial acceptance of the mission of Christ. Usually the Christ child accepts the small cross from the young Baptist but in this case he accepts the Baptist himself.

La Petite Sainte Famille(The Small Holy Family). Attributed to Giulio Romano. c.1518. The Louvre

If the two paintings are companion pieces, they would then represent the beginning and the end of Christ’s mission. The meeting of the two infants in the Judean desert recalls the words of the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God,” and in the vision from the Book of Revelation, the Lamb who was sacrificed will join “the One seated on the Throne.”

Whilst the primary aim of Dr. DeStefano's piece was to review the Biblical source for the Vision of Ezekiel - the question of attribution is also strongly raised. It must be noted that both works are of similar size, on panels of approximately 40x30cms. Following examination of the Louvre piece(*), the attribution of La Petite Sainte Famille is now firmly with Giulio Romano, whereas the Pitti Piece, less scientifically scrutinised than any of the Raphaels in Florence still has its traditional attribution, almost purely on the strength of Vasari's mention of it. 

As Dr. DeStefano has demonstrated, not only is Vasari's reading of the thematic source in need of review, but questions arise as to its correct attribution. With a circa 1518 date, it is of course likely this was produced by Romano under Raphael's guidance, possibly his design. The similarity of La Petite Sainte Famille to the Prado's famous Pearl are of course noted - which is generally agreed by scholars a Romano/Raphael collaboration. As more details of Roberto De Feo's investigation into the Vision of Ezekiel are released, perhaps more answers will be forthcoming. 

It is most definitely curious that two similarly sized paintings, with a unifying theme - after having been stolen by Napoleonic forces, now have separate attributions by virtue of which gallery they happen to be located in. -H. Niyazi.


Vasari, G., Lavin, M.A(ed.) Lives of the Most Eminent Painters. Volume II. New York, 1967. p. 41.

The Jerusalem Bible: Reader's Edition. Garden City. New York. 1966

Cuzin, J.P. Raphael, His Life and Works. New Jersey. 1985. p. 226.

(*)Beguin, S. Nouvelles analyses resultantes de l'etude et de la restauration des Raphael du Louvre. The Princeton Raphael Symposium. Hall, M.B, Shearman, J.(eds). Princeton University Press. 1990. p.40, 45


Dr. Francis P. DeStefano is a retired associate professor of history, who now dedicates his time to writing and lecturing independently on history and art history. His key area of interest is Venetian Renaissance art, particularly the works of Giorgione. His ongoing research into historical and sacred themes influencing artists in the Renaissance can be read at Giorgione et al, and its parent site Tempesta News.


Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Very interesting!

Alberti's Window said...

Interesting post!

Frank, you have put forth some interesting ideas about figure in the background as Saint John. I also think that Vasari's identification as the figure of Christ (but with imagery similar to that of God the Father) isn't problematic at all, given the nature of the Trinity.

Dr. F said...


You make a good point. The youthful body and light brown beard could be a reference to "I and the Father are One."


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments.

@M/Frank - The nature of the Trinity does not explain some key questions about this piece. It is a simple fact that Old Testament images were less prevalent at this point in the 16th Century visual tradition. Less so in the case of Raphael and his School - particularly for a private commission.

Michelangelo's Sistine Frescos were notable for many reasons, one of them was that they re-introduced many Old Testament themes into the visual tradition in Italian painting. Given Michelangelo's theological disposition, and his affinity with the teachings of Savonarola, this makes sense.

Can we say the same for Raphael? He painted some Old Testament subjects for the Stanza della Segnatura, such as an Adam and Eve scene and The Expulsion of Heliodorus, this being done to parallel the exploits of Pope Julius II.

Did Vasari visit Bologna and sight these works, or was he working from a secondary source? In addition, some further details on the provenance of the Small Holy Family is required. Were both pieces taken by French forces at the same time, from the same location? This information would be revealing, but has been difficult to obtain.

A technical vs stylistic comparison of Ezekiel and the Small Holy Family would better be able to delineate if they were created in a similar manner, with similar materials, which would go a long way to establish whether they were by the same artist.

Kind Regards

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