The Gentle Genius

Late Raphael

an exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, June 12–September 16, 2012, and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, October 8, 2012–January 14, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Tom Henry and Paul Joannides.
Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 382 pp., e35.00 (paper)
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Raphael and Giulio Romano: The Vision of Ezekiel, 1516–1517. The small figure of Ezekiel can be seen in the lower left-hand corner.

In its normal setting on a wall of the Galleria Palatina in the Pitti Palace in Florence, The Vision of Ezekiel, partly by Raphael, partly by Giulio Romano, is one small painting in a multitude of paintings, most of them clamoring loudly for attention: Titian’s Bella and Raphael’s Donna Velata vie for the crown of voluptuous textures—velvets, silks, pearls, hair, living flesh. Nearby we see Raphael’s portrait of Tommaso Inghirami in wall-eyed rapture, the veins veritably pulsing beneath the surface of his skin, and the circular compactness that lends his Madonna of the Chair its intimacy.

Amid all this beautiful clamor any viewer can probably be forgiven for missing out on what The Vision of Ezekiel has to offer beneath its strange image of God descending in a cloud of apocalyptic monsters: an infinitesimal landscape with a tiny Ezekiel in the foreground, no larger than a silverfish, transfixed by a burst of heavenly light. But what a landscape! Its lazy river recedes back into endless depths between steep wooded hills. In the space of perhaps two inches by eight, the painting takes us on a dizzying flight straight up the Tiber valley to the green heart of Umbria, to the road that still leads from bustling cities like Florence and Perugia to Rome. It is a landscape as softened by the slow action of wind and water as Leonardo’s famous drawing of the upper Arno valley is stark and spiky, and it is a vision no less evocative of nature’s omnipresence, of perspectival depth and the artist’s commanding eye—but all contained within the lower margin of a painting that is largely taken up with a bizarre, and entirely unnatural, celestial vision.

When The Vision of Ezekiel hung all by itself on a wall of the Museo Nacional del Prado this summer (it is now to be seen in Paris), it finally commanded its rightful attention as a phenomenal work of art, its only neighbor a large tapestry showing the same arresting subject (see illustration on page 63). Woven on Raphael and Giulio Romano’s design in Flanders by the Fleming Pieter van Aelst, this hanging once decorated a canopy bed in the Vatican Palace for Pope Leo X. In its textile version, Ezekiel’s bizarre vision of God, cherubs, and apocalyptic beasts floats on clouds in the pure blue-gray air, free of all earthly ties, including Ezekiel himself. Van Aelst, a master of his craft, evokes the radically diverse textures of divine flesh, fur, bursts of light, and vaporous clouds by minutely adjusting the color of his woolen filaments; in its effect, the tapestry is both a monument and a miniature.

In the painted Vision of Ezekiel, however, the most captivating passage is the most…

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