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100 Best Paintings in London


Text by Geoffrey Smith


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Raphael: Pope Julius II - 1511–12

London, National Gallery

Julius appears as the quintessential worldly pope, hands encrusted with bejewelled rings. He has chosen to be portrayed sitting in a chair adorned not with any papal emblem, but with the acorn, his personal device, a reference to his family name della Rovere, meaning ‘oak’ in Italian. And indeed he really was the archetypal Renaissance pope, leading his troops in military action to re-establish papal control in central Italy but at the same time commissioning some of the greatest works of the Renaissance.

It was Julius II who had summoned Raphael to Rome three years or so before he sat for this portrait and set him to work on the decoration of the Vatican Palace. And, at the same time that Julius eased himself into his chair for Raphael to capture his likeness, Michelangelo was busy in another part of the Vatican complex putting the finishing touches to the Sistine ceiling while Bramante was working on the new St Peters.

Raphael has captured an extraordinary likeness of this remarkable man, its profound effect on near contemporary viewers attested by Vasari, the sixteenth-century artist, biographer and commentator, who reports that many were startled by such a lifelike image. There are some wonderful passages, particularly the use of light and shadow to define the undulations in the old man’s face, in the modelling of the silk sleeves and in the foreshortening of Julius’s left hand.

This picture was once thought to be a copy until, in 1970, scientific tests revealed that the motif of papal keys barely visible in the curtains behind Julius had once been painted gold. It became clear that this portrait was the original and that the artist had obviously changed his mind about the backcloth and had overpainted in green.

The picture can be fairly accurately dated by the presence of Julius’s beard. In 1511 the papal city of Bologna was lost and Julius vowed to grow a beard as a mark of remorse. In March 1512 he shaved it off. The next year he was dead and Raphael’s skills were at the disposal of a new pontiff.


Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London


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Contemporary Works

1510 Albrecht Altdorfer: Rest on the Flight into Egypt; Berlin, Staatliche Museen

1512 Michelangelo: Sistine Chapel ceiling completed; Rome

1514 Quentin Massys: The Moneylender and his Wife; Paris, Musée du Louvre

Further Paintings of Interest

Self Portrait with a Thistle

Albrecht Dürer

Nelly O’Brien

Joshua Reynolds

Family Before a House in Delft

Pieter de Hooch

© Great Works of Western Art 2018