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Raphael, Marriage of the Virgin, 1504

Video transcript

DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the Brera in Milan, and we're looking at an important early Raphael. DR. BETH HARRIS: Raphael's in his early 20s when he paints this, and the subject is The Marriage of the Virgin. And it's taken from a book called The Golden Legend. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Now, this is a medieval book that basically tries to fill in all the missing stories in the Bible. I mean, if you think about this deeply religious Christian culture, they look to the Bible to understand the sacred story. But there are so many omissions. There are so many things that are missing that people created the glue to tie the stories together. DR. BETH HARRIS: And that's what's collected in the book we know today as The Golden Legend. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this story is about the marriage of the Virgin Mary to Saint Joseph. And the story says that there were a number of people that wanted to marry Mary. DR. BETH HARRIS: She had many suitors. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And each of these suitors had a rod, and that she would be married to the one whose rod flowered. DR. BETH HARRIS: Miraculously flowered. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Needless to say. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so they went to the temple, and the man whose rod flowered was Joseph. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And we can see that in this painting. Joseph, who's got that wonderful yellow drape over his shoulder and around his waist, is putting a ring tenderly on the Virgin Mary's finger. And he holds in his left hand a rod that indeed has leaves at its end. DR. BETH HARRIS: And there are other suitors behind him you can see have rods without flowers on the end. And one suitor in the front is annoyed, has decided to break the rod on his knee. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: This wonderful human narrative quality here, this is not just the sacred event. But it really is enacting it before us as a kind of performance. DR. BETH HARRIS: And so right in the center, we have a priest marrying Mary and Joseph. And the painting is so symmetrical in so many ways with that temple behind. And we have this rationally constructed perspective space. And that priest is in the middle between Mary and Joseph, but he tips his head a little bit, so he's just off center. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: In fact, there's a little bit of the chaos of the crowd that people are moving this way and that, that people are focusing here and there. DR. BETH HARRIS: This painting is often compared to an early Renaissance painting by Raphael's teacher, Perugino, The Giving of the Keys to St. Peter. And you can begin to see here in this early work by Raphael indications of what we understand now as the High Renaissance style, as opposed to a kind of stiffness of the 15th century, of the early Renaissance. Raphael gives us figures who seem to move very easily and elegantly. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So make no mistake. This is a painting that is still clearly indebted to Perugino. But I think you're absolutely right. Raphael is beginning to step out of his master's shadow. He signed the painting, and if you look very closely at the front of the temple, you can see it says Raphael Urbinus, Raphael from Urbino. And there is a beautiful sense of elegance, especially in the Virgin Mary. She is painted so tenderly. DR. BETH HARRIS: And she stands in a lovely contrapposto, tilts her head down. There's that typical Raphael sweetness. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: So whereas the early Renaissance so often was trying to reveal the truths of what we see of the world that we live in, here there's an attempt to perfect, to create a kind of balanced, harmonious representation of an ideal, Heavenly place. DR. BETH HARRIS: Ideal beauty, perfection, harmony are qualities we associate with the High Renaissance. And we see that in the background of this painting. If we follow the linear perspective system and we track the orthogonals created by those paving stones behind the frieze of figures in the front, we see a centrally planned temple in the background, a form that was considered ideal by the architects and the artists of the High Renaissance. We can think of Bramante, for example, and his Tempietto. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a spectacular building. And I love the way that the linear perspective leads our eye back there past the frieze of figures in the foreground. And then our eyes are allowed to move around that arcade that's occupied by those smaller figures. But then my eye goes back to the doorway and then through the building to the doorway on its far side and to the sky that's revealed beyond even that. And there is that diminishment of the scale of the one doorway and then the farther doorway giving us a real sense of the completeness of this space. DR. BETH HARRIS: There's a real love of creating an illusion of space and the way that the sizes of the figure shift as we move further back into space. We have this real harmony here that I think is very typical of the High Renaissance between the architecture and the figures where one ennoble another, where one is as ideal and perfect as the other. It's this High Renaissance moment, although the very beginnings. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course, we're looking with hindsight as to what will happen. [MUSIC PLAYING]