Hailed as the most important painting ever to cross the Atlantic, Raphael’s stunning Colonna Altarpiece arrived in New York in 1912 to a fanfare of American headlines, and the boast that the baron of Wall Street, JP Morgan, had paid the record sum of 2m francs or half a million dollars (equivalent to $9m today) for this treasure trophy. The New York press raved that this picture from “Raphael’s best period” was definitely “finer than anything in the Louvre or London’s National Gallery”. 

“The Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints”, which formed the large square main panel, was a long way from home and its devout beginnings adorning the wall of a small Franciscan convent in Perugia. Separated from the rest of the altarpiece when it was dismembered and sold piecemeal to pay the nuns’ grocery and butcher’s bills in 1663, it and the other six fabulous oil-on-wood panels traversed the continent in different directions, passing from one royal collector to another.

Their illustrious owners included maverick Queen Christina of Sweden, the licentious duc of Orleans, despotic kings of Naples, British Baroness Burdett-Coutts and the powerful Roman Colonna family, for which the altarpiece was named. Morgan had not just bought a wonderful Raphael work; he had also acquired a picture of pedigree.

The masterpiece was painted between 1504 and 1505. Now, for the first time since it was carved up, all seven panels are reunited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, along with an impressive series of drawings and paintings Raphael produced around the same period, plus works by Italian artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Fra Bartolommeo who influenced him.

So why the fuss? How did a picture hold its own over five centuries? Where did Raphael, the Prince of Painters, get his genius? And how did this outsider from Umbria make his name as one of the big three of the High Renaissance along with Leonardo and Michelangelo?

This fine exhibition, and its accompanying publication, tells this thrilling story. Raphael died at 37 in 1520; his career spanned 20 years. His genius for absorbing new ideas and transforming them into something more allowed Raphael to move swiftly from regional painter to Florentine star, relocating later to Rome and the Pope’s patronage.

Personality and background played a role in his success. Charming, intelligent, a virtuoso draughtsman, designer, architect, impresario, teacher and head of a large workshop, he was also a poet and friend of prelates and princes. Unlike the solitary, neurotic Michelangelo, Raphael moved comfortably in elite aristocratic, religious and intellectual circles. His father was an artist courtier, a writer and painter at the cultivated court of the Montefeltro dukes. This no doubt helped Raphael’s receptive, open-minded attitude to new artistic currents.

It is hard for us to imagine just how revolutionary were the new developments of perspective and innovations for spatial effects in a three-dimensional world by describing volume, shadow and form. As the curator Linda Wolk-Simon explains: “Coming from Urbino where Perugino’s conservative, gentle, floating figures and stock poses held sway, he must have been bowled over by the new modern work of Leonardo and Michelangelo. But he got it. Raphael understood Leonardo’s radical developments in the area of movement and facial characterisation. And we know from a drawing on show here that he sketched Michelangelo’s David sculpture. And he was only 21 or 22.”

The Met’s altarpiece is a key work in Raphael’s transitional phase from Umbria to Florence which, says Wolk-Simon, explains some of its awkward passages. Raphael was also constricted by his patrons, as the nuns seem to have made various demands, one being that the Christ Child be clothed. “He looks as if he’s dressed to go sailing,” observed one visitor, referring to the white-and-blue romper-suited baby perched on his mother’s lap.

This naturalness and humanity, which emanates from all Raphael’s serene Madonna and child pictures (seen also in “Madonna at Nones”, 1503), is a prime factor in the centuries-long cult of Raphael. He paints sacred figures as human beings, but their effortless grace and deep inner integrity display their holy station.

While the altarpiece’s five predella or base panels – the “Procession to Calvary”, “Pieta”, “Agony in the Garden”, “Saint Francis” and “Saint Anthony” – retain an endearing, slightly naive quality, its main panel and primary image – surely painted after Raphael arrived in Florence – is sophisticated and vibrant, its luminous composition captured in pure glowing colour. It exemplifies the straightforward, unembellished “maniera devota” or devout style, which applied to religious art meant to be easily understood: an edifying image for a population that was largely illiterate. Imagine the impact on a peasant: there above the altar sits the richly robed Virgin on a throne surrounded by saints while blessings rain from on high.

And here comes the problem with this exhibition: an imperfect installation. The lunette depicting God with Angels and Cherubim, for instance, is not above one’s head, but installed at eye level. There is no sense of awe, no way to appreciate Raphael’s brilliant orchestration of space, nor the echoes of identically coloured robes in the various sections, nor the altarpiece’s strong vertical axis created by God in the lunette floating over the Child, with the Passion centred below. The impact of the altarpiece and the cross references of the original configuration are lost.

Like many others, I looked forward to seeing the re-united panels, yet despite the fact that three were brought from London and another from Boston to join those parts permanently in the Met, they are scattered around the central gallery. So near and yet so far. Low ceilings seem to be the reason, but surely the Met, with its acres of space, could have found an alternative? Sadly, analytical historicism has taken precedence over emotional thrust. The only way to get the full impression is from a tiny label beside the main panel – a tantalising glimpse of a centuries-old goal. The show ends in two months. Can the Met conclude this never-to-be-repeated event with a final flourish: a rehang of the seven panels properlytogether again? I do hope so.

‘Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece’, New York, until September 3. Tel +1 212 535 7710. Sponsored by Homeland Foundation.

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