Supplementary Appendix 272.5

The Cabinet Piece attributed to Raphael in the Söder Gallery

Illustration: frontispiece to Friederich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr, Beschreibung der Gemälde-Galerie des Freiherrn von Brabek zu Hildesheim mit kritischen Bemerkungen und einer Abhandlung über die Kunst[,] das Schöne in den Gemälden der niederländischen Schule zu sehen (Hannover 1792):


(1) Söder par S. S. Roland (=Charles Antoine de Saqui-Sannes) (Göttingen 1797) (in French), 145–48; German translation, Söder von S. S. Roland, aus dem Französischen ins Deutsche übersetzt von C[arl] G[ottlieb] Horstig, mit zwey malerischen Ansichten und einem Grundrisse von Söder, nebst dem Bildnisse des Freyherrn von Brabek (Leipzig 1799), 84–85:

The Adoration of Simon by Raphael. This diminutive painting provides an ample and eloquent outline of all those characteristics we admire in the larger compositions by this singular painter. Raphael rarely painted in a smaller format. We are familiar with at most only four or five paintings with such restricted compositional features, and we are justifiably astonished to find one of them in the gallery of a mere private collector. Indeed, our astonishment grows when we observe it and put ourselves in a position to study it more precisely.

The Virgin in a seated position, holding the Christ child upright on her knees. The child is looking at Simon, toward whom he extends one arm, which the aged man, full of quiet reverence, tries to grasp with his own hands. On the opposite side, Joseph, leaning on his staff, observes the child with tender interest. Two other figures can be seen, the one behind Joseph seeming to represent the painter’s own likeness, with which it betrays at least considerable similarity.

This composition, organized with profound understanding, constitutes a magnificent grouping. All the characters are beautiful, the character of the child sublime. The artist has managed to marry the element of the divine with this most simple of expressions. Quiet, innocent joy permeates the figure of the Virgin.

A perhaps less animated and yet more unequivocally expressed sense of satisfaction comes to expression in the features of Joseph’s countenance. Simon’s overall body position announces profound respect and reverence. Although the two figures in the background expand and enrich the whole, they add little to enhancing the overall expression; especially the figure considered to be that of the painter himself seems less to belong integrally to the painting.

It constitutes an addendum that actually does not really support the action and yet does more clearly contour it, constituting as it does a contrast whose silence lends new interest to that which does speak and feel within the painting. Considerable artistic skill is required for such denials, and considerable understanding for rendering them appropriately without having them insult the viewer. They constitute the point of rest in a painting; the painter must acquire control over them the way he encounters them in nature itself.

One need but observe any grouping whose attention is focused on something specific. One will always encounters figures there that seem distracted and do not participate in whatever is otherwise the cohesive element within the rest of the group. One can see in this painting how this great painter, once having abandoned his customary manner and now concentrating a wholly rich composition in such a narrow space, one which in his larger paintings he would fill perhaps with a single brushstroke — how this great painter nonetheless denies none of his own character and loses nothing of his characteristic dignity.

It was with the purest and most accurate drawings — one of the primary merits of this great artistic master — the most beautifully rendered positionings, the most rigorist style, and the most balanced composition that he here combines a charming coloration of the sort he often was unable to attain in his most beautiful works.

Together with the overall treatment and charm of expression, such then contributes not a little to demonstrating that this precious piece derives from the good, perhaps even best period of this artist, with not a trace of that particular aridity he had acquired from Pietro Perugino during his earliest period.

(2) See the different assessment in Friederich Wilhelm Basilius von Ramdohr, Beschreibung der Gemälde-Galerie des Freiherrn von Brabek zu Hildesheim mit kritischen Bemerkungen und einer Abhandlung über die Kunst[,] das Schöne in den Gemälden der niederländischen Schule zu sehen (Hannover 1792), 11–16:

The Mother of God with the Child, St. Joseph, and Three Male Figures, by Raphael.

(8 inches high, 6 1/4 inches wide, on Chinese paper glued to wood)

. . . The idea is quite simple: the scene is set alongside a pedestal that likely belonged to the seat of a column along a portico or at the entrance of a grand gate. In front of the pedestal, to the left, a red cover hangs downward before the observer, and to the right one sees a portion of the sky. The Mother of God sits in the middle on a hewn stone holding the child Jesus standing upright such that she encompasses his body with one hand while elevating his right foot a bit with the other.

To the Madonna’s left, a bishop approaches with an uncovered head, grasps the child’s left arm, which the latter extends to him, and prepares to kiss it. The child raises its right arm to bless him. Behind the bishop, one sees the upper portion of a young man in a surplice who seems to be part of the bishop’s entourage. To the Madonna’s right, St. Joseph stands leaning on a staff, with one knee on the stone on which Mary is sitting, and with his body leaning forward that he might see past the Madonna toward what is taking place on the other side.

In the background between St. Joseph and the Madonna one sees the head of a youth who seems to be departing but who shows the observer his face by turning his head toward the scene he is leaving.

This painting likely owes its origin to one of those expressions of devotion that were so common during Raphael’s time. Because some pious bishop wanted a testimony to his devotion to the holy family, he had himself and his entourage painted displaying their reverence to the Mother of God and her child, and the finished painting was then destined to adorn an oratory or small house chapel. This is all one can say with any degree of probability about the subject here, for in my opinion one cannot support the assertion that it was to portray a scene in the Temple.

The scene takes place not in the Temple, but rather at most in front of it. The child Jesus is portrayed as being two or three years old. The bishop and his canon are dressed in garments of the more recent church, and the entire expression does not really suit the aged Simon, who with overflowing feeling grasped the child Jesus in his arms and cried: “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace! etc.”

That the young man with his head turned around is Raphael himself cannot be reliably maintained, since the resemblance is at least not really that striking. I find it not improbable that the head was positioned there simply to fill the lacuna between the heads of St. Joseph and the Madonna, and in order not to insult the eye through any unpleasant break.

The positioning is good. The individual parts of the whole unfold easily and lightly before the observer’s eye. The figures are not positioned in a single row one next to the other as was Raphael’s habit during his first period. As is reasonable, the Mother of God sits with her child in the preeminent position. One’s gaze, as is quite natural, moves on both sides outward past the other figures, whereby the sometimes higher, sometimes lower positioning of the heads provides pleasant variety.

As far as the choice of forms, the position, and the expression are concerned, the Mother of God has a countenance with which I am otherwise unfamiliar in Raphael. Otherwise the countenances of this master’s Madonnas exhibit something sublime and serious. This one almost exhibits a kind of Marathan amiability, and in the lower part of the face even something petty.

That said, an element of modesty, inner goodness, and natural simplicity has been poured over it. She nestles her head tenderly onto that of her child, though without her forward-focused gaze taking in any more of the action. The features of her figure are quite svelte, and especially the arm with which she holds the child exhibits a charming position. I will leave for the more experienced connoisseur to decide whether this arm, in its juncture at the shoulder blade, is not too far from the head, and whether the neck is perhaps too long.

Indeed, I would similarly ask whether in a general sense the figure of the Madonna is not too long compared to the other figures around her, whether the lower part of the body is in correct proportion to the upper part, and whether the left leg along with the hip could really be turned so far around to the right that the body assumes a position directed completely to the left. As charming and attractive as the form may well be as a result of this turn of the body, I find it too unnatural for approval. That said, such extreme corporeal turns have been similarly reproached in other figures by Raphael.

The child Jesus is undeniably the figure from which the style of this master most powerfully emanates. The head is of considerable, albeit childlike beauty. Nor is it merely the element of amiability and unaffectedness that renders it so pleasing, for there also inheres in it an intimation of a spirit beyond its years. The gaze, full of mildness, which the child directs toward the bishop, is so appropriate to the action that one may safely say it genuinely does dispense blessing.

The body is disproportionately large compared to the head with respect to the child’s age. The hips especially are too thick, and the muscles of the knee too overtly rendered — all of which are mistakes not uncommon in Raphael and despite which the figure remains quite beautiful: how cute are the child’s small feet! how charming the arms, breast, body, and the hand extended to the bishop!

Although the expression of reverent devotion in the head of the bishop is quite true, I prefer that of the canon, which is full of grace and conceived quite in the spirit of the most beautiful youthful heads in the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament by the same master. Both the head of the bishop and that of the canon, however, seem to me to be modeled after those of real persons.

The head of St. Joseph has something gloomy and arid about it that most recalls the school of Pietro Perrugino. It is also difficult to take in the entire positioning of this figure at first glance. That is, the body seems off balance, deformed, and the left arm too short. Only upon closer examination does one see that St. Joseph is supporting himself with his left knee on the stone on which Mary is sitting, and is leaning over to the left in order to see better. The positioning of the right side and especially the abbreviated arm probably lack something as well insofar as they do not sufficiently recede.

The young man who turns his head while departing is similarly stamped with Raphael’s spirit, being separated from the action and too arbitrarily positioned; for no head can be turned around that far to the back. [Footnote: Some of these remarks can be demonstrated by the copper engraving serving as the frontispiece to this work. We had the drawing made from the original itself by the miniature-painter Kuntze by means of paper dipped in oil and then engraved according to this drawing. We hoped thereby to attain the highest degree of faithfulness that might be expected in our region by artists who do not study Raphael on a daily basis. In the final analysis, however, we see that the copper engraving can serve only for explicating and describing the painting. The heads and body forms suffered the most. One would be quite unjustified in judging the originality and value of the painting according to the outline of this copper engraving.]

I have already mentioned some of my doubts concerning the correctness of the drawing. With respect to this point, let me add that the outlines are not harshly cut as is often enough customary in Raphael’s early paintings. The contours of the Christ child, however, do constitute an exception, though such derives, as one can clearly see, from the fact that the subtle transitions from the flesh to the contrasting garment have faded. On the two fingers the Christ child raises in blessing one clearly notices a pentimento [change after the fact]. They were too long, and the painter improved this error by covering the tips with the red color of the Madonna’s garment. This addition has now faded, and one again sees the previous excessive elongation. The hands are not handsomely rendered, though Raphael’s strength did not reside in this part of the human body in any case. Otherwise they exhibit much of his style except that the form and muscles are not rendered clearly enough. The feet are excellent.

The garments are beautifully placed and reveal the figures’ body parts quite well.

The coloring exhibits the same beautiful choices one finds in the half of his Disputation of the Holy Sacrament that was finished last. It has the liscio of the Italians, the delicately coalesced lighter elements of a given color in its darker shadings. The master did not employ any grand variation of tints. He engaged a more or less dark flesh color for each age and sex. Such seems to have consisted merely of white and red among women, consistently yellow among the male figures. With the simple addition of black and umbra, he seems to have produced all gradations even down to the strongest shadings. Thus do the middle tints of the Madonna and child acquire an extremely gentle pearl coloring, whereas among the male figures these middle tints incline more toward green. The strongest shades, finally, incline toward a brown that is not, however, burnished, but rather exhibits a regnant coldish gray tone.

The haloes around the head of the Madonna and child, like the bordering on several of the garments, are gilded with real gold. The relationships between the garments are quite harmoniously chosen, and one notices especially those that were customary in Perrugino’s and Raphael’s school, e.g., St. Joseph’s undergarment of green changeant, the bright red cloak, etc.

The element of chiaroscuro cannot be considered in Raphael’s pictures. One must note the rounding of the individual figures, which is quite good, with even some traces of reflexes, albeit to a very incomplete degree. Abbreviations were not at all Raphael’s strength, nor have they succeeded in this painting.

The treatment in this picture is remarkable, yielding not an iota to the Dutch with respect to either diligence or refinement. The Christ child surpasses every conceivable notion of what one can expect from careful execution.

This painting undeniably belongs among the most precious cabinet pieces that art that has ever produced, and I would boldly risk asserting that it is inferior only to the piece of approximately the same size of the holy family in the Palazzo Borghese, also by Raphael (see my discussion “Eine heilige Familie von Raphael” in my work on painting in Rome, Ueber Mahlerei und Bildhauerarbeit in Rom, für Liebhaber des Schönen in der Kunst, part 1 [Leipzig 1787], 309). This painting here, though not drawn in the grandiose and correct style as is that one, is nonetheless more diligently executed.

I am convinced that this picture is by Raphael. My primary reason is that considering the unmistakable characteristics from Raphael’s school that this picture does indeed exhibit, I am acquainted with no master among his contemporaries or students who could have painted this well and who simultaneously could have combined the conceptions of beauty with such diligent execution, both of which are evident here.

I do no deny that some doubts concerning the veracity of this attribution remain. For the countenance of the Madonna we see here is otherwise not characteristic of Raphael. Several incorrect features in the drawing can similarly be reproached, and the diligent treatment, the genuine gold in the haloes and garments do not coincide with the period in which Raphael had already freed himself from the harshness of the school of Perrugino. For in the earlier period in which he was yet rendering such gold and yet executing as diligently, he was still harsh. But one finds nothing of Perrugino’s harshness in this picture.

That said, these objections do not carry sufficient weight for me over against the inner conviction I experience whenever I view the piece as a whole. I believe that this work was done during the same time he was working on the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, in the transition from the school of Perrugino to his own, freer manner.

Perhaps I may also risk suggesting that one of his students prepared this picture after his drawing, and that he, Raphael, retouched it afterward, a suggestion the occasionally noticeable pentimenti seem to support, since we already know from Mengs’s works that a similar chance event occurred with respect to the Transfiguration. Otherwise I might remark that this jewel has been splendidly preserved, a jewel that, after this long and perhaps for many readers fatiguing description, I nonetheless cannot leave it without love and yearning.