Standing at the Altar: Raphael Reconstructed

At a symposium a few years back, a critic of some note insisted that art lovers should dedicate their attention exclusively to “the new,” that they should welcome it indiscriminately in order to encourage culture. The critic insinuated that history was a waste of time and asked incredulously, “I mean, what are we going to do, look at a Raphael all day?”

Sounds good to me. If only the Met had installed benches in the gallery they’ve devoted to Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece. Then visitors could sit comfortably and look all day, taking in its myriad virtues at an appropriately contemplative pace.

While visiting this must-see exhibition, a sense of disappointment about the state of contemporary art passed through my mind. There are reasons to feel good about 21st-century art. But our most accomplished artists will be moved and daunted by Raphael’s tour de force—particularly the main panel’s Madonna and Child surrounded by a bevy of saints. It’s a masterpiece of supernal proportions.

The show accomplishes a significant historical feat: It reconstitutes Raphael’s altarpiece for the first time in over three centuries. Staples of the Met’s permanent collection, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints and its accompanying lunette, God the Father Blessing, with Angels, have been reunited with five small paintings from the altarpiece’s predella, works that are otherwise spread out among the collections of London’s National Gallery and Dulwich Picture Gallery, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and, again, the Met.

Some have grumbled that the pictures haven’t been reconstructed exactly as they were originally seen at Sant’Antonio di Padova in Perugia. Sticklers for historical precedent have a point, I suppose, yet the truth of the matter is that devotees of painting will be happy to sacrifice architectural veracity and a bit of devotional integrity for the chance to relish such mastery up close and personal.

Raphael’s painting realizes incredible complexity through astonishingly succinct means. The divine imagery—a prime concern of the Franciscan nuns who commissioned the work, but whose tastes ran (or so we are told) to “the conventional and retardataire”—is inextricable from the crystalline intensity Raphael brought to his craft. The interdependence of form and content is a shopworn conceit—until a painter such as Raphael reminds us how vital it is.

Criticism surrenders, inevitably and with gratitude, to pleasure. There isn’t a fallow moment in Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints. The slow, sensual curve of yellow drapery worn by Saint Peter; the machine-like rhyme that occurs between the quills held by Saint Catherine of Alexandria and the unidentified female figure at the right; the strange, fleshy tone of the surface of the entire tableau; a palette of almost unbearable purity and depth—enumerating the characteristics of the painting can make it seem like a mere inventory of pictorial features. But however startlingly individual the parts may be, Raphael always leads us back to the overriding logic of the sacra conversazione.

To gauge Raphael’s genius, you just need to turn around: At the opposite end of the gallery housing the altarpiece is a pair of paintings by Fra Bartolommeo, a painter of no mean gifts and a source of inspiration for the young Raphael. There’s much to commend in The Holy Family (c. 1498) and Madonna and Child, with the Young Saint John the Baptist (c. 1497), especially the quietude that envelops both scenarios. But how leaden and ill-formed they look when seen within a stone’s throw of Raphael! It’s a great, if inadvertent, lesson in connoisseurship.

Maximizing sumptuousness while hewing to a steely control, Raphael’s extraordinary gift for color is patent throughout all of The Colonna Altarpiece. The five paintings from the predella are, on the whole, less sturdy compositionally and lighter in cadence, yet the palette is just as finely tuned. Of particular note is the lively parade of yellows punctuating the centerpiece, The Procession to Calvary (1504-5).

Raphael brought irresistible and sometimes outrageous shifts to what appear to be contained areas of color. An almost neon yellow-green is used as a highlight for, of all things, a cool salmon red; elsewhere, a silvery cream radiates within a velvety passage of gray. Here’s another reason to be grateful for the chance to nose up to the Met’s bits-and-pieces installation: Were it installed on high, our delight in the smoky blue field surrounding God the Father, a pair of angels and the cherubim featured in the lunette would be much less immediate and visceral.

Additional paintings, drawings and prints by such artists as Perugino, Pintoricchio and Leonardo da Vinci (as well as Raphael himself) explore the sources that informed The Colonna Altarpiece. An adjacent gallery details its elaborate provenance, including the Colonna nobility for which it is named, culminating in J. Pierpont Morgan’s purchase of the main section in 1901 for the princely sum of two million francs.

So what was that about welcoming the new? The care and depth that Raphael brought to Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints provokes tough questions about the work being created today. It’s a fool’s labor to pine for “good old days” long gone; yet one can’t help but compare the richness of this single painting from the cinquecento to the dizzying varieties of contemporary art. It’s hard not to find examples of the latter narrow, lacking and impermanent. The joy elicited by The Colonna Altarpiece, on the other hand, will not lose its urgency in the coming years—its mysteries are too profound and its beauty too certain.

Has our culture kowtowed to an age of diminished expectations? How much do we ask of art? How much does it ask of us? A painter on the scale of Raphael prompts a sense of measure. History makes us humble. It can inspire as well: The “Prince of Painters” offers an invigorating challenge to our own prospects. It’s up to today’s artists to follow through.

Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, until Sept. 4.

Standing at the Altar:  Raphael Reconstructed