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Raphael’s Religious Paintings and Their Early Restorations: Devotional Attention or Aesthetic Appreciation?

Cathleen Hoeniger


This essay explores whether early restorers responded to the cult status of Raphael’s paintings, since Vasari records that several of his religious works carried spiritual power. Evidence from conservation research and from historical documents suggests that both aesthetic and devotional motivations were at play, but that the context in which the painting was housed, whether a religious institution or a private gallery, contributed significantly to the response.

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Introduction: The Reputed Power of Raphael’s Religious Images

1Giorgio Vasari created a highly influential portrait of Raphael when he wrote in great detail about the artist’s career and the characteristics of his paintings in Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori scultori ed architettori (1550 and 1568) (Vasari 1878-85, v. 4: 311-386). He presented Raphael as an extraordinary individual, who was beautiful in appearance, gracious in society and, thus, almost angelic in nature. Vasari extended the comparison of Raphael to an angel when he suggested that his artistic gifts were divinely inspired. Just as Vasari had contended that Fra Angelico was uniquely able to depict saints because of his own pure and pious nature, similarly Raphael’s angelic qualities served to explain why many of his religious paintings seemed to be infused with divine power (Vasari 1878-85, v. 2: 505-26).

2The theology underpinning the use of images in the Western church did not, in theory, permit a belief similar to the Byzantine tradition, in which icons were thought to hold some of the spiritual power of the divine persons represented. However, in practice, many members of the Italian clergy encouraged faith in miracle-working images, and the institution as a whole reaped the benefits of monetary donations left in their honour. In some instances, the sums were such that new chapels and churches were built to house the paintings. One instance familiar to Raphael was the erection of Sta. Maria della Consolazione near Todi, designed in about 1508 by Raphael’s colleague Donato Bramante, to enshrine a miraculous mural painting of the Virgin (Patetta 2002; Thunø 2004).

  • 1  The work is known as the Colonna Altarpiece, because the main and pinnacle panels later were owned (...)

3Many cult images were undistinguished artistically and conservative in style, and sometimes they had been deliberately painted to resemble archaic Byzantine icons (Hoeniger 1995: 51-54). Nevertheless, Vasari tells us that certain works by Raphael’s hand had a resonance similar to religious relics. Indeed, concerning a small picture of the Agony of Christ in the Garden, initially made for the Duke of Urbino, Vasari records that after it was donated by the Duchess Leonora to an order of Camaldolite hermits, the painting was held to be ‘like a relic and something most rare’(Vasari 1878-85, v. 4: 323). Similarly, in relation to the Colonna Altarpiece, painted in about 1504-5 for the Franciscan nuns of Sant’Antonio di Padova in Perugia, Vasari attests that the work was ‘certainly wondrous, spiritual, and strongly venerated by those [simple and devout] women’(Vasari 1878-85, v. 4: 324) (Fig. 1)1.

Fig. 1. Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-1505

Fig. 1. Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-1505

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger

4In addition, Vasari relates a miraculous tale of one of Raphael’s late altarpieces. The painting of Christ Carrying the Cross (Prado, Madrid) had been completed for the Olivetan monastery, Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo in 1516 or 1517. Vasari tells the story of how the altarpiece was almost lost when it was shipped to Sicily, and the vessel ‘was broken on a rock [in a horrible storm]’. Although all ‘the men and merchandise perished’, the painting ‘was carried by the sea to Genoa, where it washed up … without any stain or defect’. As a result of this miracle, the painting ‘was found to be a divine work’ (Vasari 1878-85, v. 4: 358).

5Yet Vasari’s presentation of Raphael’s artistic commissions is not fully reliable, since he combines convincing factual information with inaccurate descriptions of some of the more complicated projects, including the disposition of the frescoes in the Vatican Stanze. He also gives credence to spurious legends and oral traditions. Evidently, the story of a very large altarpiece, which had been shipped from Raphael’s studio in Rome to the commissioners in Palermo, only to emerge miraculously from the sea on the Ligurian coast, is a tall tale. On the other hand, Vasari’s claims about the spiritual power of paintings by Raphael that were the property of religious orders of nuns and friars probably do reflect the actual convictions of devout Christians of his era.

6In the centuries that followed, some of Raphael’s images were singled out anew for their devotional efficacy, and in several instances the religious stature of works by Raphael was reinforced by powerful patrons and notable events. For example, one series of frescoes that was repeatedly described as having spiritual significance was the cycle of fifty-two Biblical narratives on the vault of the Vatican Loggia of Leo X (1518-19). Evidence of the credence given to these representations of divine events by the popes themselves can be found in a collection of engravings issued in 1790 by the Roman printer Pietro Paolo Montagnani (Fig. 2). Below the scene in each print a cartouche was inserted with the biblical passage believed to most aptly comment on the imagery. In addition, a decorative title page announced the dedication to the present pope, Pius VI (Amor Dei 2006). Evidently, the dissemination of the narratives in this format reinforced the papal understanding of Raphael’s images as powerful visualizations of Christian history. Indeed, as Vasari’s biography reveals, already soon after his death Raphael’s religious imagery became associated with the pure and authentic expression of Catholic scripture.

Fig. 2. Luigi Cunego, God Dividing Light from Darkness, 18th century

Fig. 2. Luigi Cunego, God Dividing Light from Darkness, 18th century

Engraving from: Picturae Peristyli Vaticani Manus Raphaeli ... (Rome: Montagnani, 1790). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of William Gray from the collection of Francis Calley Gray, G2684

Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College

7This paper will probe the extent to which the early restorers who approached Raphael’s religious images may have been influenced by their spiritual power. Is there evidence in the material history of the surviving paintings, or in written accounts of their restoration, that those charged with attending to these paintings were inspired to handle them in a certain way because of their ‘cult’ status?

The Early Salvage Work on the Madonna del Cardellino

8The earliest documentary record of a religious painting by Raphael that was damaged and repaired soon thereafter seems to indicate, at first, that the restoration was motivated by the artistic qualities rather than the devotional power. It was Vasari who faithfully described the circumstances under which the Madonna del Cardellino, painted by Raphael for his friend Lorenzo Nasi in Florence in about 1506, was almost completely destroyed. In 1548, a landslide from Monte San Giorgio resulted in the destruction of the Nasi palazzo where the Madonna was housed. As Vasari explains, Giovanbattista Nasi, the son of Raphael’s original patron, rescued the fragments of the wooden panel from the ruins. Vasari contends that Raphael’s Madonna was salvaged because Giovanbattista was a ‘great lover of art’, and his text seems to suggest that Giovanbattista restored the painting himself by reassembling the pieces ‘as best he could’(Vasari 1878-85, v. 4: 322).

  • 2 The recent technical examination at the Opificio was finished in 2008.

9Yet, since he was a very experienced painter and had trained in Florence, Vasari would have been well aware of the established tradition of repair and restoration within painting workshops. Presumably, the broken panel was glued together and repainted within a prominent Florentine workshop, probably with assistance from a carpenter who specialized in the construction of panels and their frames. Although Vasari would have been in Rome when the disaster occurred, he returned permanently to Florence in 1554, and may well have learned of the restoration directly from those involved, since he quickly became a central member of the artistic world of Florence. Recent examination with x-radiography clearly reveals how eleven fragments were joined together along the break lines using nails (Riitano 2003; Gregori 1984) (Fig. 3)2.

Fig. 3. Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino, c. 1506

Fig. 3. Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino, c. 1506

Uffizi, Florence, x-radiograph.

Su concessione del Ministero per I Beni e le Attività Culturali – Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Firenze, Archivio Fotografico

10Whereas the work of a lesser artist might have been left in the rubble after such a disaster, Raphael’s Madonna was salvaged in an extraordinary example of early restoration, because of the exceptional initiative of the owner, but also because of the value of the painting itself. However, one must assume that some of the value lay in the spiritual aspects of the painting, which Vasari said ‘was held in the strongest reverence by Lorenzo Nasi’(Vasari 1878-85, v.4: 322). If the panel had long provided a focus for private devotions within the family palace, the desire to see the image reborn through the able powers of a painter-restorer would have been driven by religious faith, as well as by a more earthly sense of the aesthetic and monetary value of the work of Raphael.

Aesthetic Reworking of the Madonna del Baldacchino and the Entombment

  • 3  For a summary of the technical findings see Ciatti; for the material history and critical fortune (...)

11Two later examples of restoration work on religious paintings by Raphael seem to reveal a more exclusive emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the images. However, both of these paintings no longer were in the possession of the original commissioners, and also both had been removed from their religious environments. Raphael had left the large altarpiece of the Madonna del Baldacchino (Galleria Palatina, Florence) close to, but not completely finished, when he was called to Rome in 1508, and he never found the time to return and attend to the remaining sections of the painting. Although intended originally for the chapel of the Dei family in Santo Spirito, after Raphael’s death the unfinished altarpiece passed to his heirs and was eventually placed in about 1540 in lavish chapel of Pescia cathedral, erected by Baldassare Turini, one of the executors for Raphael’s estate. By 1697, the Grand DukeFerdinand de’ Medici was negotiating to purchase the altarpiece, which was brought to the Palazzo Pitti by 1698. Before being exhibited alongside other Medici paintings, however, a structural and pictorial enlargement took place during the fall and winter months of 1697-98. The court painter, Niccolò Cassana, supervised the addition of a canvas strip of about thirty-two centimetres in width to the top of Raphael’s altarpiece, painted the new canvas to create the effect of an enlarged architectural space, and applied a patina varnish with a golden brown tone (Ciatti 1991: 51-82; Chiarini 1984: 119-128)3.

12It was not unusual for court painters to be commissioned to alter paintings in this manner so that they could fit into new display spaces. There are several examples of Renaissance altarpieces being repainted to increase the spatial effects in accordance with later tastes (Bergeon 1975: 98-99).  Nevertheless, when the Madonna del Baldacchino was enlarged, the original figures and setting were not retouched, but kept as Raphael had left them at the stage of the under-drawing or under-painting. As Marco Chiarini has suggested, such restraint on the part of the restorer may reflect the respect of both the patron and the artist-restorer for Raphael’s creative process, as revealed in the design stages of the composition (Chiarini 1991: 13-20; also Conti 1988: 47, 91-93).

  • 4  Camuccini’s repainting was removed in 1970 by conservators at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro i (...)

13It was, however, far more common for artist-restorers to fully repaint areas of damage and even to improve upon, what they considered to be, weak or out-of-date passages in historical paintings. A much later case in point features the prominent painter-restorer Pietro Camuccini, who reworked Raphael’s innovative Entombment of 1507. In 1608, the altarpiece had been removed from the Baglione family chapel in the church of San Francesco, Perugia, at the request of Scipione Borghese. In this way, the altarpiece, commissioned originally by the mourning mother Atlanta Baglione in memory of her dead son Grifonetto, became dissociated from its sacred precincts (Coliva 2006: 133-5). Relocated within the gallery of pictures in the Borghese collection, confiscated by Napoleon’s deputies and later returned as part of the restitutions to Rome, in 1816 Camuccini approached the image primarily as an aesthetic creation, and used his own taste to determine how the outlines of the figures and their drapery could be improved (Giacomini 2007: 162-3)4.

Insensitive Revisions to the Canigiani Holy Family

14A more extreme example is provided by the repainting of the Canigiani Holy Family of about 1507-8, which had been commissioned to fulfil the devotional needs and aesthetic desires of an affluent patrician, Domenico Canigiani, and his family in Florence. After coming into the hands of the Medici dukes, and being hung in the Tribune gallery in the Uffizi, the painting left Italian soil with the marriage of a Medici daughter in 1697 to the Elector Palatine, Johann Wilhelm, whose court was in Düsseldorf (Tipton 2006). Under a later Elector, Carl Theodor, in the early 1750s, Raphael’s painting was radically revised and seriously damaged in the process. As Hubertus von Sonnenburg discovered when he cleaned away the heavy repainting of the sky in 1982, in preparation for the Raphael exhibitions of 1983, the clusters of angelic putti in cloud formations in the upper right and left corners of the composition, which had not been fully completed by Raphael, later on were aggressively scratched apparently in a failed attempt to erase them from the painting. Soon afterwards the sky was heavily repainted. From such a distance, and with little archival evidence, it is not possible to determine whether the restorer responsible was the Parisian, François-Louis Colins, who was on salary as inspector of the Elector’s art gallery, or someone far less talented (Massing 2012: 67-71; Hoeniger 2011: 220-31). More important in relation to this inquiry is the obvious evidence of a complete lack of sensitivity to Raphael’s sacred imagery whether fully finished or not. Indeed, the conservator Von Sonnenburg has aptly described the eighteenth-century intervention as ‘something similar to iconoclasm in the scratching off of the angels’(Von Sonnenburg 1983:40). Von Sonnenburg adopts the language of religious persecution to characterize the harsh and disrespectful approach taken to Raphael’s work, which is still held in such high esteem that it is, as it were, venerated.

Devotional Renovations to Raphael’s Religious Images

15There is, however, some evidence to suggest that when religious works by Raphael were not removed from their original environment the approach taken by restorers was different. When the paintings remained in the hands of the original owners or their descendants, or when they were preserved within the confines of churches or other religious buildings, they retained strong religious associations and were treated as religious objects in the process of repair and restoration. The three examples that will be considered in this essay seem allied to a long tradition of religious renovations, which continued during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

16Frequently in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was the artist-restorer’s task to renovate and thereby modify paintings. In many of the Italian provinces, a considerable number of panel- and wall-paintings were noticeably altered through repainting or re-framing, sometimes to increase the religious efficacy of an image, and at other moments because of changing taste. In most instances, it is difficult to fully comprehend the reasons for early alterations, since the scant surviving documentation rarely explains the motivations. Commission documents and workshop journals record renovations carried out by prominent Florentine masters during the second half of the fifteenth century, including Filippo Lippi, Alesso Baldovinetti, and the versatile Neri di Bicci (Maestri 1992). In most cases, the renovations that Neri di Bicci documented in his workshop account book or ricordanze seem to have been requested by patrons to adapt paintings in churches to new circumstances of ownership, situation or taste. For instance, he rehoused old altarpieces from the fourteenth century by inserting the central Madonna and Child with Saints into an all’antica frame so that the patrons could have a work for their chapel that accorded with the latest taste for classically-inspired architecture (Neri di Bicci 1976: 382-3; Hoeniger 1995: 105-7; Thomas 1998: 1-14). One widespread procedure performed for many religious patrons involved inserting a venerated image inside a larger painted or sculpted framework, apparently to enhance its religious power, but also as a means of attracting alms (Warnke 1968). Many members of the clergy in Italy encouraged adaptations of this kind long after the general tendency had been to move away from overt renovation. In fact, the reworking of cult images continued in certain religious environments on the peninsula into the 17th, 18th, and even the 19th century. One kind of renovation carried out by Neri di Bicci to adapt a religious painting to more closely match the needs of patrons involved altering the identity of the saints represented in an altarpiece to feature those favoured by the new owners (Conti 1988:15). In a similar manner, two of the changes to works by Raphael that will be discussed below arguably were provoked by the specific desires of patrons.

A Theological Alteration to the Predella of the Colonna Altarpiece

17The first panel originally formed part of the Colonna Altarpiece (c. 1504-5), painted (as mentioned above) for the Franciscan nuns in Perugia, and described by Vasari as ‘strongly venerated’ (Vasari 1878-85, v. 4:322-4). Although the predella for the altarpiece was painted on one continuous panel with three scenes from Christ’s Passion, the plank was sectioned before the nuns sold the predella in 1663 to Queen Christina of Sweden, in order to pay off debts (Rossi 1874: 304-15). The left part of the predella, representing the Agony in the Garden, is now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Wolk-Simon and Dabell 2006) (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Raphael, Agony in the Garden

Fig. 4. Raphael, Agony in the Garden

Predella panel from the Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger

18Technical examination using x-radiography has revealed that Raphael’s small composition was reworked. In the initial painting, as David Alan Brown has explained, the chalice symbolizing Christ’s future sacrifice was set on the hillock to the right, which took the form of a natural altar. However, in a later revision, Raphael’s chalice was replaced by the figure of an angel, who offers a smaller goblet to the kneeling Jesus (Fig. 5). In style and iconography, the added angel follows the local Umbrian manner familiar to the nuns. Yet the diminutive angel does not accord, proportionally, with the rest of Raphael’s representation (Brown 1983:119-23). Scholars have concluded that the nuns chose to have the image repainted, but when the revisions were carried out remains unclear.

Fig. 5. Raphael, Agony in the Garden

Fig. 5. Raphael, Agony in the Garden

Detail of Fig. 4

Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger

  • 5  ‘ei calicem de coelo porrigentis’( see Rossi 1874).

19Recently, curators at the National Gallery,  London, have argued that the repainting was completed significantly later (Chapman, Henry and Plazzotta 2004: 150-2). It does seem certain that the repainting betrays continuing religious interest in a work described by Vasari and in later accounts as highly revered. The revision seems to have been primarily theological in nature, since the angel messenger places added stress on the will of God the Father. Indeed, in the description recorded in conjunction with the sale of 1663, the angel is portrayed as a vehicle for God’s divine plan, since the iconography is said to show ‘a chalice stretching out from heaven towards [Christ]’5. As a result, it is possible to conclude that the nuns of Sant’Antonio chose to have the image repainted for devotional reasons.

The Overpainting on the Madonna di Foligno

20A second example of a religious painting which remained for centuries in sacred precincts features one of Raphael’s most critically-acclaimed altarpieces, the Madonna di Foligno, which was commissioned by the learned secretary of Pope Julius II, Sigismondo dei Conti, before his death in February 1512. Although the intention of Sigismondo seems to have been that the panel would grace the high altar of the church of the Aracoeli in Rome, it is not certain whether Raphael’s altarpiece was ever placed there. However, in 1565 the altarpiece was moved to Sigismondo’s home town of Foligno, and placed in the Franciscan convent church of Sant’Anna, where Sigismondo’s niece was Abbess. In this situation, the painted surface seems to have received attention to refresh the appearance in a manner typical for the era.

  • 6  These comments appear near the beginning of the famous restoration report of 1801 :“Rapport à l’In (...)

21When Napoleon’s cultural experts examined the altarpiece in Foligno in 1797 before shipping it to Paris as the booty of war, and later in the laboratory at the Louvre, remarks were made that the Madonna di Foligno was covered with repainting that was so dark and thick that it virtually obscured Raphael’s image6. Presumably after the warping of the poplar planks began to initiate the insidious flaking of the paint layers, the nuns had painters refresh the work.  On the other hand, the nuns seem not to have attended to the wooden structure, since the panel had been attacked by vermin and was severely cracked. Most likely they could not afford to pay for extensive structural work, or feared the painting would never be returned if they once let it out of their hands, as many powerful individuals had petitioned over the years to purchase it. The altarpiece, however, was attended to in other ways, since wooden statues of the Virgin and St. Anne had been placed to either side of Raphael’s visionary image long before 1797.

The Figure of Joseph in the Chantilly Madonna: Raphael’s Revision or a Later Devotional Addition?

22The final example to be considered is Raphael’s so-called Madonna di Loreto, housed in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, which was painted in Rome in the same years as the Madonna di Foligno, probably at the behest of Pope Julius II (Fig. 6). The title, Madonna di Loreto, is misleading since it was a copy, not the original, which was later displayed in Loreto in the Marches. The original is one of a number of variations on a compositional and iconographical type known as the ‘Madonna of the Veil’, which seems to have fascinated Raphael for several years in Rome. The surviving preparatory drawings have been dated by Paul Joannides to the years 1509-11 and the panel itself seems to have been painted in 1511-12 (Joannides 1983: 201). Numerous later copies of the painting survive and a large number of engravings were made, which attest to the importance of this image.

Fig. 6. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12

Fig. 6. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12

Musée Condé, Chantilly.

Photo: Google Art Project

23The complicated fate of the original painting and one of the workshop copies has resulted in much confusion over the centuries. From the earliest references to Raphael’s original, which appear in the manuscript known as the Anonimo Magliabechiano (dating from about 1542-8) and in Vasari’s first edition of Le vite (1550), we learn the painting was hanging on a column inside Sta. Maria del Popolo in Rome, and that Raphael’s Portrait of Julius II (London, National Gallery) was hung on another column in the church. Because the church was patronized by the Della Rovere family, many have assumed that Julius II (formerly Giuliano della Rovere) commissioned Raphael’s Madonna for this location or that he donated the painting to the church (Béguin 1979: 5; Kemper 2004). However, Julius died in 1513, and our earliest evidence for the location of Raphael’s painting comes from several decades later. In 1591, both the Madonna and the portrait of the pope were taken from the church by the nephew of Pope Gregory XIV, Cardinal Sfondrato. Together the paintings were later sold in 1608 to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, where they were recorded as part of the Borghese collection in Rome when an inventory was taken in 1693. The Chantilly Madonna, acquired in 1854 from the Borghese collection, bears the Borghese inventory number, which secures its provenance and authorship (Gould 1980: 337-41; Barberini 1984: 63-70).

24The trajectory of another version of Raphael’s original is also pertinent to this investigation. The painting was known as the ‘Madonna di Loreto’ because it was housed in Loreto by 1717, where one of the most visited pilgrimage shrines in Christendom had been established, and the image became infused with additional devotional associations because of the sacred nature of the site. In 1797, the authorities in Loreto, after hearing news of the pillaging by Napoleon’s deputies in neighbouring towns, sent their painting to the pope’s nephew Duke Braschi in Rome. However, when the French entered Rome in 1798, they removed the Madonna and shipped it to France. The director of the Louvre, Dominique Vivant-Denon, found the painting disappointingly inferior, and it was sent to the church of Morangis in 1820. The painting has since been lost without a trace (Gould 1979: 9).

25For most of the twentieth century, the Chantilly Madonna also had been considered a copy and held an attribution to Raphael’s assistant in Rome, Gianfrancesco Penni.  However, in the 1970s the painting was cleaned of over-paint and a darkened varnish film, and a celebratory exhibition opened in 1979 to present the Madonna as Raphael’s authentic original.  Although archival research on the provenance served to secure the attribution to Raphael, the cleaning and scientific examination exposed the fact that the painting had been completed in two separate stages. The x-radiograph revealed that Raphael had originally included a window in the upper right corner, and that the figure of Joseph, which was absent from the x-radiograph, was not part of the original paint layers, but added later overtop of a dark backdrop (Faillant-Dumas 1979: 55-9; Béguin 1983: 62-3, 417-9) (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12

Fig. 7. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12


Paris © Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France

26In the exhibition catalogue, Sylvie Béguin expressed her conviction that these changes were not made substantially later: ‘the process of elaboration and repainting … could not have been done by a copyist’ (Béguin 1979: 17). It would have been awkward to complicate the attribution to Raphael in the midst of the celebratory exhibition by suggesting Joseph was added several years later in Raphael’s shop. Moreover, Cecil Gould believed the numerous copies after the image confirmed that Raphael himself had altered the work and ‘at a very early stage’ (Gould 1980: 338). There are three known copies that were produced before the figure of Joseph was added, but over 100 include Joseph. Yet the logic seems flawed since the copies that include Joseph cannot be securely dated to the same period as the initial creation of the picture. Similarly, the first dated engraving, which includes the figure of Joseph, was made by Michele Lucchese and released only in 1553 (Boorsch, Lewis and Lewis 1985: 171-4) (Fig. 8). Perhaps, instead, many more copies of the revised composition exist because, after the panel had been reworked, it came to be hung in Sta. Maria del Popolo for a large audience to admire.

Fig. 8. Michele Lucchese, Raphael’s Madonna di Loreto, 1572

Fig. 8. Michele Lucchese, Raphael’s Madonna di Loreto, 1572

Engraving, reworked impression of first state

Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum

Revisions as Part of Raphael’s Creative Process

27In the last decade, intensive technical study of several paintings by Raphael from his Florentine and Roman periods has markedly increased our understanding of the way he designed and painted both small devotional images and larger altarpieces, including the fact that he often reworked compositions in the paint layers. There is considerable evidence of Raphael adjusting his ideas after the design was transferred to the gesso by the pouncing of cartoons and the incising of architectural outlines using ruler and compass. It had been assumed that Raphael completed the Florentine Madonnas on his own, without significant workshop assistance. For instance, conservation-scientists in Paris examined the paint layers of La Belle Jardinière (Louvre, Paris) in the early 1980s and concluded that the panel was painted by one hand and in a relatively short time (Béguin 1983: 83). It seems more likely, however, that Raphael, if he did not have his own workshop, found a space in another painter’s shop in Florence in the years 1504-7, and availed himself of the assistance he needed for the preparatory stages.

28Indeed, the evidence from a recent technical investigation of the Bridgewater Madonna (National Gallery, London), dating from about 1507, seems to coincide with workshop production. Study using infrared photography has revealed some evidence that a cartoon was pounced and then the lines were fully drawn on the gesso ground using black chalk. The use of a pounced cartoon may indicate the employment of an assistant to help with the initial transfer of the design to the panel. Then, Raphael fleshed out the under-drawing. Furthermore, from x-radiographs there is evidence of further experimentation by Raphael during the process of the paint layers. At first Raphael painted a landscape background, which he then covered over, with the exception of a vista through an open window in the upper right. Finally, the window view was rejected and Raphael settled on an austere solution with a simple niche, almost lost from sight in the shadows. Late in the process of painting, Raphael also altered the way in which the Virgin’s blue mantle was draped around her right shoulder, which necessitated considerable reworking of her crimson dress (Henry 2004: 198).

29During his years in Rome beginning in 1508, Raphael became the manager of a large and very productive workshop. Technical investigation has exposed different ways in which designs were transferred within the workshop. As in some of his Florentine works, Raphael’s hand has been identified when transferred dots or outlines were reworked in the stages of under-drawing and under-modelling. Frequently, changes also were made during the process of the paint layers. However, most of the revisions seem to have involved the background and relatively minor aspects of the figural groups, not principal or theologically important elements. For instance, when working on the much larger and more demanding Sistine Madonna, which was begun in 1512 for Julius II, Raphael revised the composition in a relatively minor way late in the process of execution. After completing the visionary appearance of the Virgin and Child with Saints Sixtus and Barbara, and once the background and the cloud layer had been finished, Raphael returned to the lower section and added the two famous putti almost as an afterthought (Capellen 2005, v. 2: 107).

Artistic Revision or Theological Change?

  • 7  I wish to thank Natalia Gustavson for this information.

30On the other hand, the situation for the Chantilly Madonna was somewhat different, because the changes to the right background and the addition of Joseph were carried out after the painting had been entirely completed. Therefore, the figure was either part of a revision by Raphael and his shop, or it is possible that Joseph was added several years or even a decade or two later. Two paint samples taken from the area of Joseph were tested recently and found to contain pigment combinations analogous to those identified in works by Raphael himself and by Perugino, but also in paintings from as late as Bronzino in Florence (Mottin, Martin and Laval 2004). The discovery of crushed glass in one of the samples, sometimes used as a siccative in oil paint layers to speed up the drying7, was noteworthy because this ingredient had been found elsewhere in the picture, though also in paintings by Raphael’s contemporaries and followers. Although the research confirms that the figure of Joseph is painted with ingredients compatible with those used by Raphael and his shop, the possibility that Joseph was added later by a member of Raphael’s workshop after his death or by another artist in Rome cannot be ruled out. The presence of ground glass does indicate that, whoever added the figure of Joseph was in a hurry and, therefore, anxious for the addition to dry quickly.

31It is suggestive to reconsider the parallel case of the predella panel from the Colonna Altarpiece with the disproportionately small angel offering Jesus the chalice in the Garden of Gethsemane. Similarly, in the Chantilly painting, Joseph fits awkwardly into a space for which he was not originally intended. Moreover, it is apparent that the revision was desired not for artistic but for theological reasons, as the iconographical significance is notably altered by his presence, from an image devoted to the ‘Madonna of the Veil’, in which the veil alludes to Christ’s Passion, to a representation of the Holy Family.

Concluding Remarks

32Therefore, it may be possible that the Chantilly Madonna was reworked for religious reasons and by another hand after it had been completed by Raphael. Indeed, the likelihood that the repainting was motivated by devotional impulses should be considered in relation to the longstanding practice of religious renovations in Catholic environments. Such a proposal should be possible in a climate in which there will be no detrimental impact to the physical nature of the painting itself. Evidently, painting conservators of our day would never be tempted to remove the figure of Joseph to reveal Raphael’s original composition beneath. Even if some scholars may wonder whether Joseph was added later, in response to new theological or cult needs, the more recent philosophy within European conservation of respecting the historical vicissitudes of an object will ensure that very early repainting of a devotional nature is extremely carefully evaluated before any conservation decisions are made.

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1  The work is known as the Colonna Altarpiece, because the main and pinnacle panels later were owned by the Colonna family in Rome.

2 The recent technical examination at the Opificio was finished in 2008.

3  For a summary of the technical findings see Ciatti; for the material history and critical fortune see Chiarini.

4  Camuccini’s repainting was removed in 1970 by conservators at the Istituto Centrale del Restauro in Rome.

5  ‘ei calicem de coelo porrigentis’( see Rossi 1874).

6  These comments appear near the beginning of the famous restoration report of 1801 :“Rapport à l’Institut National sur la restauration du Tableau de Raphael connu sous le nom de La Vierge de Foligno, par les citoyens Guyton, Vincent, Taunay et Berthollet”.

7  I wish to thank Natalia Gustavson for this information.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-1505
Caption Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Credits Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger
File image/jpeg, 160k
Title Fig. 2. Luigi Cunego, God Dividing Light from Darkness, 18th century
Caption Engraving from: Picturae Peristyli Vaticani Manus Raphaeli ... (Rome: Montagnani, 1790). Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of William Gray from the collection of Francis Calley Gray, G2684
Credits Photo: Imaging Department © President and Fellows of Harvard College
File image/jpeg, 116k
Title Fig. 3. Raphael, Madonna del Cardellino, c. 1506
Caption Uffizi, Florence, x-radiograph.
Credits Su concessione del Ministero per I Beni e le Attività Culturali – Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Firenze, Archivio Fotografico
File image/jpeg, 112k
Title Fig. 4. Raphael, Agony in the Garden
Caption Predella panel from the Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-5, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Credits Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger
File image/jpeg, 156k
Title Fig. 5. Raphael, Agony in the Garden
Caption Detail of Fig. 4
Credits Photo: Cathleen Hoeniger
File image/jpeg, 152k
Title Fig. 6. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12
Caption Musée Condé, Chantilly.
Credits Photo: Google Art Project
File image/jpeg, 104k
Title Fig. 7. Raphael, So-Called Madonna di Loreto or Chantilly Madonna, c. 1511-12
Caption X-radiograph.
Credits Paris © Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France
File image/jpeg, 140k
Title Fig. 8. Michele Lucchese, Raphael’s Madonna di Loreto, 1572
Caption Engraving, reworked impression of first state
Credits Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum
File image/jpeg, 188k
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Electronic reference

Cathleen Hoeniger, « Raphael’s Religious Paintings and Their Early Restorations: Devotional Attention or Aesthetic Appreciation? », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2013, Online since 27 October 2013, connection on 13 December 2017. URL :

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About the author

Cathleen Hoeniger

Cathleen Hoeniger is a professor of art history at Queen’s University in Canada, whose research focuses on the material history and critical fortune of Italian Renaissance paintings, with an emphasis on Raphael. Queen’s University, Department of Art, Kingston, Ontario, K7L 3N6,

By this author

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Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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