Raphael Paints His Frescoes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican established a high standard of Renaissance pictorial eloquence that influenced later artists. The paintings—covering four rooms—also provided a visual record of Church authority and papal ambitions, as well as the artistic programs of Julius II and Leo X.

Summary of Event

In the autumn of 1508, Raphael was summoned to Rome from Florence by Pope Julius II. The artist may have been recommended to the pope by the architect Donato Bramante, a distant relative of Raphael. Julius II was one of the most powerful and ambitious popes of the Renaissance. Intent on matching the imperial splendor of ancient Rome, Julius II embarked on vigorous building campaigns and called on prominent artists to help fulfill his cultural ambitions. Painting;Italy Raphael Julius II Leo X Romano, Giulio Bramante, Donato Julius II Bramante, Donato Romano, Giulio Leo X Raimondi, Mercantonio Raphael

Raphael’s fresco, the Disputa, reflects the ideals of Theology and focuses on the Trinity, which is represented at the center of the painting. God the father appears above the figure of Christ the Son and the Dove of the Holy Spirit.

(G. P. Putnam’s Sons)

His strong dislike for his predecessor, Pope Alexander VI, prompted Julius to move from the Borgia Apartments to the floor below and to design rooms of his own. The pope commissioned the young Raphael to decorate several of the rooms in the Vatican papal apartments. The record of preparatory drawings for the rooms, known as Raphael’s Stanze, points to a complex scheme for the fresco cycles. Raphael’s first commission involved painting frescoes on the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura.

This room, probably intended as the pope’s personal library, had a ceiling decoration that consisted of large circular frescoes, or tondi, depicting four female figures that correspond to the disciplines painted on the walls below: Theology, Philosophy, Poetry, and Jurisprudence. The entire room evokes Humanist areas of learning. The first scene to be painted, the Disputa, representing Theology, focuses on the Trinity represented on a central tiered axis of the painting. God the Father appears above the figure of Christ the Son and the Dove of the Holy Spirit. The Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist flank the figure of Christ and are accompanied by a semicircular ring of martyrs and prophets. Below, a group of Church figures are engaged in animated discussion around the eucharistic Host.

Raphael’s artistic genius is revealed in the room’s most famous fresco, the School of Athens School of Athens (Raphael) , representing Philosophy, painted between 1510 and 1511. Complementing the spatial treatment in the Disputa Disputa (Raphael) on the opposite wall, if not surpassing it, the School of Athens presents Plato and Aristotle, identified by the titles on the books they carry, Timaeus and Ethics, on a large concourse accompanied by ancient philosophers and scientists as well as contemporary Renaissance figures. Plato points toward heaven to indicate the realm from which his ideas are inspired. Aristotle points earthward to denote that observation of the natural world is key to his philosophical ideas.

The fresco is dominated by the two central philosophers, who seem to walk gracefully into a space filled with groups of figures who interact with each other in a multitude of poses and gestures. A remarkable clarity of tones pervades the painting, and the massive space is structured by a strict and unifying linear perspective. The entire narrative is ordered under a grand architectural setting inspired by Bramante’s design for the new St. Peter’s Basilica.

On the room’s two shorter walls, Raphael painted Parnassus Parnassus (Raphael) and Jurisprudence Jurisprudence (Raphael) . According to classical mythology, Parnassus was the dwelling place of Apollo and the Muses. Representing Poetry, in Parnassus Raphael painted an assembly of great poets of the past and the Muses who are being enchanted by the music of Apollo. On the other short wall, where the artist adopted a circular and rhythmic solution for the shape of the space, Jurisprudence is personified by three female virtues: Fortitude, Prudence, and Temperance. These are joined, farther below on the wall, by figures of Pope Gregory IX approving the Decretals and the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I receiving the Pandects. Thus, civic law and ecclesiastical law are represented. The remaining virtue, Justice, is painted in one of the ceiling vaults.

In 1512, Raphael began work on the Stanza d’Eliodoro, which he completed around 1514. Decorated with scenes from legendary and historical events related to Church history, the room may have been used as an audience chamber. The principal motifs are the Mass at Bolsena, the Expulsion of Heliodorus, the Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison, and the Repulse of Attila.

The figures depicted in the Stanza d’Eliodoro have achieved a greater heroic dynamism, and the compositions are filled with a greater intensity of feeling and colored in a more dramatic way, than those in the Stanza della Segnatura. In the Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison Deliverance of St. Peter from Prison (Raphael)[Deliverance of Saint Peter from Prison (Raphael)] , Raphael adopted an extraordinary range of nocturnal lighting in the semicircular space. From the crescent moonlight in the sky on the left to the dazzling divine light that encircles the angel at the center and on the right, the scenes are no longer constructed around a strict symmetrical balance but rather place their focal points off center.

The Expulsion of Heliodorus Expulsion of Heliodorus (Raphael) and the Mass at Bolsena Mass at Bolsena (Raphael) , with its miraculous story of the bleeding of the eucharistic Host, must have appealed particularly to Julius II, as his portrait is included in both episodes. Raphael’s work on the room continued after Julius’s death in 1513. In the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza d’Eliodoro, Raphael realized in paint Julius’s ideas on the role of the Church.

The decoration of the papal apartments continued under the pontificate of Leo X, when, in 1514, the pope commissioned Raphael to decorate the Stanza dell’Incendio. The room, finished in 1517, takes its name from Raphael’s Fire in the Borgo Fire in the Borgo (Raphael) , which chronicles a miraculous event in which a fire raging in a district just outside St. Peter’s Basilica was extinguished in 847 by Pope Leo IV. The other scenes depicted in the room are the Oath of Leo III, the Coronation of Charlemagne, and the Battle of Ostia. As other artistic projects demanded greater attention, Raphael turned over work on the room to members of his workshop. The increase in figural proportions, strained poses, and the dramatic color scheme all stem from the work of assistants, led by Giulio Romano.

Assistants played an even greater role in the Sala di Costantino, the most spacious of the four rooms. Raphael and his students began work on this room in the first part of 1519 under the continued patronage of Leo X. The room had primarily a ceremonial function. At the time of his death in 1520, Raphael was still working on the Sala di Costantino. Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni (called il Fattore) inherited their master’s workshop and continued to work on this room. Thus, a strong mannerist style can be seen in the figures and spatial treatment of the Sala di Costantino’s later frescoes. Eight figures of enthroned popes, arranged chronologically from St. Peter to Gregory the Great, decorate the room’s corners. The walls are painted with narratives from the life of Constantine. The paintings reflect the Church’s earthly power combined with events from the life of the first Christian emperor.


Raphael spent the last twelve years of his life in Rome and made an extraordinary contribution to one of the most productive artistic periods in the city. While Raphael painted his Vatican frescoes, Michelangelo was painting the Sistine ceiling and Bramante was building the new St. Peter’. Raphael’s Vatican frescoes set a high standard for Humanist art of the period that sought to follow the classical ideals of beauty, and it helped establish the stylistic language of the High Renaissance. He combined nobility, clarity, and grace into a perfect harmony that expressed both Christian and classical thought.

Raphael’s frescoes also provide insight into papal intellectual and artistic interests, as well as the decorative projects the popes were engaged in during the early sixteenth century. In the early documents, Raphael is cited as the artist who exhibited perfect coloring, moderation, and figural variation, and he is praised as a master of narrative style. Through his collaboration with the engraver Marcantonio Raimondi, his art was known by many people who were unable to enter the papal apartments and see it firsthand.

Raphael’s later work, including the frescoes, also represented a transition from the style of the High Renaissance to the mannerist movement. Mannerism Mannerism , which was practiced by Giulio Romano and other students of Raphael, represented a rejection of classical ideals of formal beauty and an embrace instead of techniques designed to convey subjective impressions. The famous elongated figures of mannerism, for example—already beginning to appear in Raphael’s work—were preferred over figures in perfect proportion because they were more expressive than such figures. Mannerists attempted to portray the ineffable and intangible aspects of life: They created infinite and undefined spaces as opposed to the carefully ordered space of the High Renaissance, they attempted to represent motion at the expense of well-defined static figures, and they sought ways to represent intense spiritual and miraculous experience that transcended the scientific perspective of Renaissance realism.

These later mannerist trends were present in nascent form in Raphael’s work. After his death, members of Raphael’s workshop emphasized the artist’s proto-mannerist aspects when they disseminated their version of his style throughout Rome and beyond. His later style was modified and adapted to the aesthetic requirements of mature mannerism. Raphael’s reputation may have been associated somewhat unfavorably with academic art, but he has always been recognized for his genius, innovative method of coloring, and an inventiveness that influenced definitively the development of Renaissance art.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, James. Raphael. Rev. ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Concise discussion of the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza d’Eliodoro.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Marcia, ed. Raphael’s “School of Athens.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A collection of essays that examines in detail aspects of the most famous fresco in the papal apartments, including earlier scholarship and Raphael’s use of color, together with past and new interpretations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Roger, and Nicholas Penny. Raphael. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. Presents a chronology of Raphael’s artistic production with a well-illustrated discussion of the Vatican frescoes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Joost-Gaugier, Christiane L. Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura: Meaning and Invention. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Examines in detail the symbolic content of Raphael’s first Vatican project.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Partridge, Loren. The Art of Renaissance Rome, 1400-1600. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996. A study of the impact of papal artistic patronage and a useful discussion of the Stanza d’Eliodoro and the Sala di Costantino.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rowland, Ingrid D. The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth CenturyRome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Examines how and why the High Renaissance came about by exploring the cultural, political, and intellectual forces behind it.

1462: Founding of the Platonic Academy

1469-1492: Rule of Lorenzo de’ Medici

1477-1482: Work Begins on the Sistine Chapel

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1500: Revival of Classical Themes in Art

1500: Roman Jubilee

1508-1512 and 1534-1541: Michelangelo Paints the Sistine Chapel

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

Dec. 23, 1534-1540: Parmigianino Paints Madonna with the Long Neck

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco

Categories: History