Sunday, September 12, 2010

Raphael: The Three Graces

Beheld with eyes fully open, earthly beauty becomes divine; the visions of saints and prophets live and breathe before us, and the warm, living bodies of the lovers in our arms trade places with celestial angels, goddesses, and gods.

The great Renaissance painter Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio de Urbino) had youth, polish, charm, intelligence, wit, charisma, good looks, a wealthy family that nurtured his artistic talent, an ability to network and make fast, influential friends, a genius for absorbing and synthesizing the purest classical elements of the great, eccentric Renaissance talents (Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo) and the skill to fuse "the best of the best" into immortal artwork as breathtakingly beautiful and original as any ever produced ... all delivered with an offhand grace that made it look easy. Raphael was a rock star. In 16th century Florence and Rome, he went from lavish court party to lavish court party accompanied by a starstruck entourage of fashionable admirers (read: groupies).

And Raphael loved women (perhaps too much so; making love to a particularly possessive patron's wife apparently got him killed while still in his thirties). The secret power of his many Madonnas (portraits of the mother Mary) lies in how much they are really just beautiful young Italians. A more sophisticated reading of the situation might suggest that Raphael's work reflects the age's duality of earthly and divine beauty, Christian and (Christianized) pagan themes.

Perhaps that's part of the otherworldly charm of his The Three Graces (1504). The theme is pagan (the Graces come from Greek mythology), but the iconography is Christian (the church gave the Graces a pass as they could be made to stand for Christian virtues such as Faith, Hope, and Charity). But the beauty here is all about, on the one hand, the sensuality of the female nude, and on the other, idealized classical balance, as well as the desire to keep all of these balls in the air.
The painting's design contains a counterpoint of circular forms (the circular arrangement of the figures, the polished spheres (apples?) that they hold, and the gently bowed heads of the three women contemplating the spheres). But the composition attains its classical sense of proportion, symmetry, and above all balance, largely through the woman whose back is turned towards us - she is centered vertically and horizontally in the picture, and her bent arms resemble the mechanism of a hand-scale (as well as a cross?!).

The painting seems to balance the riddles of beauty, love, sex, and the sacred in equal measure - even if only in an ideal dream of perfect, interlocking forms, lasting only just long enough for a glimpse of the eternal, within the brief, earthly duration of our seeing.


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