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Coming to Artistic Terms With a Divine Scheme

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Alexander Nagel , 43, is best known for an award-winning book on Michelangelo, and for research into Renaissance concepts of history that he conducted during a two-year stint as Andrew Mellon professor at the National Gallery's Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts. This fall, he was appointed professor of Renaissance art history at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York -- art history's Caltech.

This is quite a complex painting.

On the one hand, there seems to be an emphasis on a single moment, and on the other hand an emphasis on things enduring through time.

There is the sense that John's head has just looked up, that Christ's head has just turned, that the Virgin has come to attention, and that all of them are magnetized for a second by the cross that Christ has grasped. At the same time, the whole thing seems poised and static.

And that contrast seems to me to be reflected in the composition of the picture. In how the figures represent a highly dynamic group distributed in space and involving quite a bit of twisting and turning, and yet they also create a kind of flat, orderly hexagon on the surface.

This duality in the painting also produces a particular kind of theological emphasis. It advances the notion that the contingent, the earthly, the episodic, is also part of a larger, timeless plan. All the separate little episodes of history -- a child dandled by his mother in a meadow, for instance, as she puts down her book -- look to us as though they've happened in an almost accidental way, but this painting reveals that they're all part of God's supratemporal plan.

The cross here can exist as a symbol of the Crucifixion before the actual event of the Crucifixion because the divine plan cuts through mere chronology.

This relationship between history and the divine scheme is a persistent, profound issue in Christian theology. And in this painting a new set of artistic problems -- which have to do with balancing a detailed description of nature and human bodies with a larger sense of compositional and structural order -- have created new insights into it.

But here's a further, crucial step in my reading: I find it hard to believe that Raphael would not reflect on how all this parallels his own historical position as a painter.

Raphael is coming out of a century of volatile changes in art. Everyone knew that in the previous 100 years, painting had gone from Byzantine-style gold-ground painting to perspectival painting to extreme explorations of realism in figures and settings. Looking back from Raphael's vantage point, art looks unstable.

So Raphael wants to give pictures back some of the stable authority they seemed to have had in earlier times.

And this task, assumed by Raphael as a painter, also relates to the content of his picture. As painting struggles to overcome the sense of flux and mutability that comes with having a history, that goal is reflected in, and worked out through, the Christian framework of a painting like this. The challenge of simply expressing the religious content, that is, also helps Raphael resolve the problem of how to overcome the problem of drift, of being time-bound, in the making of art.

It's right to describe the artistic solutions in this picture as helping to express and work out the theological issues. But you could equally say that Raphael works out his artistic problems through a theological framework.

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