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From Vasari’s epitome of “grazia” at the culmination of art’s third, most perfect era to Wölfflin’s paragon of the Classic style, Raphael’s paintings have exemplified definitive formal perfection. Their sacred subject matter seemed incidental to this aesthetic achievement, so completely does the expression of beauty subsume the mere articulation of devotional content. Christian Kleinbub, in his magisterial book, Vision and the Visionary in Raphael, thoroughly upends this outmoded view of the artist. He demonstrates how Raphael conceived his religious imagery, and especially visionary subjects, to mediate higher levels of spiritual contemplation. Kleinbub addresses the tension between the mimetic aims of Renaissance painting and the demand of sacred imagery to simulate celestial states that resist concrete representation. Noting how both Alberti and Leonardo sidestep devotional imagery in their mathematically and scientifically determined equation of vision and painting, Kleinbub examines how Raphael deploys the pervasive naturalism and decorum of his style, the very culmination of their prerogatives, to distinguish empirical perception from higher states of divine knowledge. These distinctions become self-reflective, even programmatic, in both the staging of the often-visionary subject matter of his altarpieces and their visual address of the worshiper. The success of a devotional image, however accomplished its artistry, depended on its “promoting a shift from corporeal to incorporeal vision” (4). Kleinbub invokes Augustine’s tripartite sequence and hierarchy of vision from De Genesi ad litteram to analyze the artist’s staging of visionary subjects: the physical vision of sensible phenomena through the bodily eyes; the imaginative vision based on mnemonic and fantastic images lodged in the mind; the intellectual vision that conjures and perceives abstract concepts. These categories, and similar distinctions in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Ficino, and Egidio da Viterbo, provide a template for how the artist’s portrayal of distinct modes of visual experience might correlate to different levels of spiritual knowledge and visionary enlightenment. As Kleinbub contends, “Raphael sought ways of presenting the supernatural as a plausible visual experience. Indeed, even as Raphael would paint the invisible divine, he did so self-consciously: he did not represent the visionary without adequate explication of its difference from bodily sense” (7; emphasis in original).
Kleinbub’s first chapter, “Making the Invisible Visible,” is the broadest in scope and traces Raphael’s cultivation of a visionary iconography. Perugino’s works furnished the young Raphael with a basic lexicon of mandorlas and cloudbanks to distinguish divine presence. Even more instrumental was Raphael’s encounter with Fra Bartolommeo, whose God the Father with Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene (ca. 1508–9) altarpiece embodies Savonarola’s notion that contemplating the image of God would reorient the eyes of the faithful from visible to invisible truths. In artistic terms this continuum is made manifest through the glory surrounding the Father, and especially its perimeter of cherubs’ heads taking shape from the radiant ether. This nebulous state conforms to Thomas Aquinas’s explanation for the nature of angelic bodies with the metaphor of pure air condensed into clouds (in Scriptum super Sententiis). As a figure of transience and metamorphic flux, the cloud putto serves as the optimal vehicle to depict, in visual terms, incommensurable spirit coming into being. Raphael further developed this innovation in the interface between distinct empirical and spiritual realms in the Disputa (ca. 1509) and the early Roman visionary altarpieces.
The Disputa has long been celebrated for its elegant compositional partitioning of earthly and heavenly zones. Both its perspectival expanse and iconic axis of diminishing circles emblematizing the Trinity culminate at the Eucharist on the altar, which reconciles substance and spirit in perpetual reenactment of Christ’s incarnation and sacrifice. In the apparition of the glorified Trinity, largely unseen by the disputing theologians, Raphael diagrams spiritual truths in concrete visual terms. The cloud putti in the banks supporting the Saints and Prophets, and in the more ethereal ring of angels above, calibrate, through variations in fleshy, nebulous, and golden substance, a spiritual hierarchy. Along with the relative dimensions of the mandorlas, these distinctions create a continuum that Kleinbub terms “a ‘spiritual perspective’ by which the artist designates the relative intelligibility of divine things in his painting” (34). In essence, Raphael’s visionary forms express the divine presence in the transubstantiated Eucharist, which Thomas Aquinas claimed was invisible to the bodily eye, apart from the accidents of its material substance, and otherwise a factor of intellectual vision.
In the wake of the Disputa, Raphael also transformed the visionary altarpiece, finding a mode for “dramatizing visionary experiences as observable, physical phenomena” (41). The Madonna of Foligno (ca. 1512) charts a “spectrum of visibility” from literal storm clouds, to ethereal apparition, to the abstract sun-disc of pure divine light. Raphael contrasts the fleshy putto with his nebulous brethren, who push aside the cumulous substance of their own spiritual being to reveal the apparition of the Virgin and Child. Though contained within a sacra conversazione votive format, the glory of the hovering putto-cloud-borne Virgin is so palpable in its spiritual visibility that Raphael appears to stage the miraculous vision coming into being before the congregation. This spectacular approach of showing the visionary forms materializing before the corporeal eyes of the beholder reaches its culmination in the Sistine Madonna (ca. 1512–13). Here Kleinbub qualifies prevailing interpretations of its embedded illusionistic structure as meta-pictorial, an aestheticizing framing of an apparition. Rather the artifice that Raphael stages here is not only that of the painter, capturing the vision in the phenomenal framework, but the divine, unintelligible process, whereby spirit transmutes into physical being. The continuum from the nearly amorphous cloud putti to the fleshy cherubs leaning into the beholder’s space charts this process, further manifest, one could add, in the Virgin proffering the Christ Child, the incarnate fruit of the divine spirit that had infiltrated her being.
Given the topic of the book, it is somewhat surprising that Kleinbub does not dwell longer on the visionary Roman altarpieces and has little to say about liturgical context and patronage, though such issues have been thoroughly explored elsewhere. One of the unexpected virtues of the study is his examination of major works that do not obviously depict spiritual vision in the narrow sense of a supernatural apparition. In Chapter 2, “The Philosophical Eye,” Kleinbub interprets the consummate perspectival construction of the School of Athens (ca. 1510) as a metaphor of Philosophy itself as rational vision leading to spiritual understanding. The orthogonals inexorably propel the eye to the arch-framed radiance of transcendent sky, which silhouettes Aristotle and Plato. In a brilliant insight, Kleinbub relates this “perspectival veduta” to the numerous fifteenth-century depictions of Annunciations, wherein precipitously receding archways either frame or punctuate the space between Gabriel and Mary. As Daniel Arasse (L’Annociation italienne: une histoire de perspective, Paris: Hazan, 1999), Louis Marin (Opacité de la peinture: Essais sur la representation au Quattrocento, Paris: Usher, 1989), and Hubert Damisch (Fra Angelico: Dissemblance and Transfiguration, trans. J. Todd, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) have observed, this perspectival tunnel instantiates the idea of infinity becoming subject to measure, of the Divine spirit conforming to the sensate conditions of humanity—the very process of Incarnation. This symbolic perspective likewise pertains to the union of body and spirit in the School of Athens: knowledge garnered through vision and empirical inquiry, epitomized in perspective, both complements and ultimately yields to purely intellectual contemplation of the soul, figured in the immeasurable expanse of sky. One might extend the Annunciation analogy to Plato’s striding pose, pointing heavenward as Gabriel often does, and Aristotle’s pivot and book held to his loins, echoing several contemporary depictions of Virgin Annunciates (Sarto, Albertinelli). As Kleinbub notes, Aristotle figures the materialization of Plato’s metaphysical meditations on eternal causes. The meditative, withdrawn figure of Heraclitus further privileges the pursuit of spiritual truth, inaccessible to the corporeal eyes.
Chapter 3, “Blindness and Enlightenment,” addresses how the Pauline tapestries from the Sistine cycle interrogate the efficacy of physical vision as a conduit for the revelation of divine truth. Kleinbub extends the analysis of the Blinding of Elymas (ca. 1515) to incorporate the often-overlooked tapestry border, absent in the damaged Vatican exemplar but included in other sets, which features a pagan idol. Its presence compounds the sorcerer’s blasphemies recorded in Acts with the impaired vision of idolatry, in conformity with the exegesis of this episode in Arator’s epic poem from the fifth century, De actibus apostolorum. In contrast to this “anti-image of spiritual vision” (81), Paul in Athens (ca. 1515) depicts the Apostle gesturing to the infinity and all-pervasiveness of God, reaching past pagan temples and idols, since the Lord “dwelleth not in temples made with hands . . . [nor] like onto silver, gold, or stone, the graving of art” (Acts 17: 24, 29). Questioning early hypotheses that the setting evinces Raphael’s archaeological reconstruction of the Athenian Areopagus, Kleinbub proposes a more symbolic cityscape, with the circular temple evoking the Pantheon, as the archetype of pagan idol worship.
The fourth chapter, “The Real and the Imaginary,” examines degrees of spiritual seeing in a more explicitly Neo-platonic context. A brief excursus on the “letter to Signor Conte,” which formulates the “certa idea” of feminine pulchritude in the Galatea (ca. 1512), underscores that even Raphael’s aesthetic ideal involved a mental vision transcending visible physical attributes. This tension between mimesis and fantasia informs Kleinbub’s elegant reading of the Ecstasy of Santa Cecilia (ca. 1514–15). The alluring beauty of both the Magdalene and Cecilia engage the viewer; whereas the former acknowledges our physical seeing, the latter gazes in rapture before a heavenly vision. Kleinbub then aligns Augustine’s hierarchy of spiritual seeing to his distinction, in De Musica, between earthly instrumental music, dismissed as mere imitation, and the abstract proportions of celestial harmonies. Raphael correspondingly renders the pile of “imitative” instruments with trompe-l’oeil mimesis, while the angelic vision is summarily sketched to evoke its fantastic presence but loftier validity. Such ontological distinctions lead to a consideration of prophetic vision as the archetype of divinely sanctioned spiritual seeing. In Vision of Ezekiel (ca. 1518), Raphael orients the looming apparition of God and the beasts of the Apocalypse not to the miniscule depiction of the prophet, but toward the viewer dislodged from any perspectival or spatial contingency. The painting negates the conditions of physical seeing to underscore prophetic veracity, much as Aquinas, in the Summa theologica, and Savonarola, in his set of sermons Prediche sopra Ezekiele (late fifteenth century), understood prophecy as a kind of angelic painting, abstracted from the senses.
The final chapter, “Raphael’s Transfiguration as Visio-Devotional Program,” examines his last altarpiece and artistic testament. The painting (1520) presents a trajectory from merely physical vision to absolute transcendence through the juxtaposition of Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and the concurrent episode of the Apostles’ failed efforts to heal a possessed boy. In the lower zone, Raphael identifies the emphatic looking, gesticulation, and careening not only with faithless delusion, but also with corrupted imagination in the contortions of the possessed boy. But the Apostle who looks inward with closed eyes and points to the miracle on the summit demonstrates the corrective of intellectual vision as the vehicle of the spiritual knowledge his companions lack. Kleinbub surveys how the compositional evolution of the mountaintop miracle proceeded from a dramatic staging to a visionary apotheosis. Christ became monumental, hovering, bathed in sublime radiance, implying God’s acknowledging presence. Whereas the event on Mount Tabor was viewed as historical rather than visionary, Kleinbub astutely interweaves theological references that account for Raphael’s glorified vision of the transfigured Christ as remote from physical sense. Origen claimed that the witnessing apostle “beholds Jesus transfigured before the eyes of the heart” (136; citing Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea), while Thomas Aquinas viewed the blanching radiance as a wholly celestial phenomenon. Kleinbub compares the progression from strained, deceptive corporeal and imaginative vision to the direct contemplation of God’s effulgence to Saint Bonaventure’s meditative Journey of the Mind to God.
Kleinbub’s trenchant study of Raphael is particularly welcome and timely in tandem with Alexander Nagel’s The Controversy of Renaissance Art (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011) (click here for review). Nagel likewise argues for the profound religious functionality of the most stylistically sophisticated devotional artworks after 1500. Artists deployed the vivid naturalism, and even classicism, of the modern style to restore and reanimate archaic formats and their numinous aura. The great merit of Kleinbub’s book is its investigation of similar issues through the systematic reevaluation of the premier master who spearheaded these developments, through the artist’s unique prerogative of figuring vision. Furthermore, Kleinbub responds to the challenge of Raphael’s paintings with dazzling exercises in visual analysis, discerning pictorial strategies and alignments that are always a priori to the theological explanations. As such, questions of whether Raphael read, or was advised about, this or that theological text are almost beside the point, since Kleinbub proposes solutions to motifs inherent in the pictorial structure. Pennsylvania State University Press has produced a volume worthy of visual beauty and sophistication that sustain Kleinbub’s readings, which will reshape Raphael studies.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University