Hang them high
This a brief plea to exhibition curators. I am spurred to it by having experienced the impressive temporary display at the Prado, El Último Rafael. It could, equally, have been called ‘Early Giulio’ because its second half is dedicated to Raphael’s protégés, particularly Giulio Romano showing a restraint that abandoned him when he had licence — and licentiousness — at the court of the Gonzagas. The exhibition begins, in contrast, with a series of imposing altarpieces by Raphael and his workshop and it is those that are the focus of my comment.
It is certainly a privilege to be able to stand in front of, say, Lo Spasimo, fresh for restoration. However, that is also my quibble: we, the viewers, stand immediately before the painting, looking the tortured Christ, as it were, in the eye. But this surely is not how the work is intended to be seen: Raphael did not imagine its viewers would dare to look straight-on at the action but would rather approach it in humble devotion, an adoration inspired not so much by his skill but by the work’s original purpose. This work — and, indeed, other altarpieces here, like the St Michael painted for Francois Ier — are simply too low on the wall. And what we have lost is not just a sense of reverence.
The captions to the paintings are keen to discern the hand of the master in details and in the design of the work. But what is lost by the fashionable low-hanging style is actually the full impact of the perspective of the image. By lowering St Michael to the viewer’s level, the power of movement, the sense of action as the figure protrudes from the picture, disappears. Equally, I would contend, with Lo Spasimo, the religious message of the art is weakened by the present display: viewed straight-on, we see a mass of people cluster around the tripped Christ but viewed from below, the impact is so much greater: we look up to Jesus as the most immediate point, and share with him in his suffering and, then, raising our eyes further, we can see the suffering lifted for Christ by the intervention of Simon of Cyrene — a metaphor for how the Crucifixion itself will lift the burden of certain death from our own shoulders.
My request, then, is simple: raise these artworks on the wall, hang them high. And, until that happens, I have advice to the visitor: be not afraid to kneel in front of one of these altarpieces. I suspect the local aficionados, born to a culture traditionally as hot in its religious fervour as in its weather, consider the curious sight of a mild-mannered Anglican on his knee before Lo Spasimo with curiosity and amusement. But don’t worry about how it looks to others: the reward for those who do approach these paintings from a position of reverence is a revelation of the genius of the late Raphael.