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Raphael - Portrait of Pope Julius II.

by Carina Stegerwald

For some years now, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt has laid claim to owning a version of the portrait of Pope Julius II created by Raphael. Other museums also fought for a long time to belong to the group of portraits of the Pope painted by the artist himself. But why all this fuss about the painting? Well, it is about Raphael. And yet: isn't this just any other work by the painter? In the following, we will take a closer look at why this question can be answered in the negative and why this is indeed an extraordinary, multi-layered and thoroughly mysterious painting. In doing so, we will look at the painting that was created in 1511 and is in the National Gallery in London, since most researchers today consider this work to be the original among the various versions.

Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II shows Julius II, whose civil name was Giuliano della Rovere and who lived from 1443 to 1513. He was elected head of the Catholic Church in 1503, so he was already a man of advanced age at that time. His pontificate was shaped on the one hand by his role as Italian territorial prince - he was considered a powerful warlord and was also called papa terribile because of his ruthless approach - and on the other hand by his great patronage. Thus he brought many artists, including Raphael, to Rome. One of the works the artist created at that time was the portrait of Pope Julius II, which depicts the head of the church in three-quarter view against a green background. The portrayed sits on the ceremonial chair, the sedia camerale, which is placed slightly diagonally to the viewer. An interesting detail are the large golden knobs of the chair, which are designed as acorns and thus refer to the name and coat of arms of the della Rovere family. The shiny surface reflects the light and colours of the surroundings. For example, there is a light-coloured area on the left knob, which some interpret as a door in the background of the scene. Have you already noticed this? The Pope is dressed in a white alb - the lower garment -, a red mozetta - the name given to the tight cap lined and edged with ermine fur - as well as a camauro, also red, which refers to the short shoulder cape. Especially in the case of the clothing, it becomes clear how fascinatingly haptic and realistic Raphael captured the various surfaces and materials and also made use of the effect of the colours.

The portrait is designed in such a way that the viewer meets the enthroned pontiff at eye level. Julius II seems to grant us an audience, yet he appears absorbed and almost absent. The pontiff has rested his arms on the back of the chair, his hands adorned with precious rings on his fingers. While he holds a ceremonial cloth in his right hand, he clasps the armrest with his left, almost as if the Pope were clinging to it. Particularly exciting is the depiction of the skin, which can be described as physiognomically realistic. At the same time, the incarnate material on the hands appears very pale and almost translucent. In this way, there are clear differences to the face, which appears much darker and marked by life. This impression is reinforced in particular by the drooping cheeks and the deep-set eye sockets. In addition, the bowed head and the downturned mouth with the closed lips express resignation, tiredness and possibly also bitterness. The long, white beard and the bushy, wild eyebrows form a frame and, together with the large nose, act as characteristic features of the face.

Contrary to what the viewer might think at first glance, we are dealing with a very complex iconography in the portrait of Pope Julius II, whereby this can be determined, among other things, by the beard. In fact, a beard was unusual at that time - especially for priests and popes - and it is the political events of the time that provide an explanation for the Pope's facial hair. After his defeat by the French king Louis XII, the pope grew a beard in 1510. He swore that he would not shave again until Italy was free of occupiers. Thus the facial hair, as captured in Raphael's portrait, can be seen as a symbol of the church leader's failed policy. In 1512, the political situation finally seemed to improve, so the beard disappeared again. It is interesting, however, that it is precisely the paintings of the bearded Julius II that most lastingly shaped the idea of his external appearance.

This also raises the question of whether the portrait painted by Raphael is a portrait of a state, as it was often quoted and copied. This at least suggests that a portrait of a ruler was designed to be copied, which would explain the various versions of the painting. But was it really intended as a portrait of a state? For most viewers, the old man may remind them little of the powerful and often irascible Pope, as he was repeatedly described. However, it is possibly precisely this mode of depiction that makes the picture propagandistic. It is very likely that the painting was deliberately staged to portray Julius II not only as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, but also as a role model for the faithful and thus as a good Christian. If we also consider that the painting probably originally hung in a church as a pendant to a Madonna, the portrait of Julius II can be viewed from a completely new angle. This double staging would at least explain the contradictory combination of private and official components, which in this way achieved a great effect on viewers and still does today. For in any case, Raphael succeeded in producing an extremely moving portrait of Julius II.

At this point, let us take another look at the green wall in the background of the painting. It is above all that intense green with several shades - especially in contrast to the rich red tones of the Pope's clothes - that seems to attract us almost magically as viewers. The heraldic motifs, i.e. the coats of arms, which can only be recognised after a closer look, also contribute to the special effect of the wall. Had you already discovered them? It is interesting to note that the background was not originally intended to be plain green. Instead, the wall was initially decorated with three different coats of arms and blue and gold-yellow. However, it is hard to believe that this extremely colourful design with its striking effect was actually done by Raphael. Counter-theses are difficult to prove, however, and so it is only certain that the background was painted over with green. In this context, it seems logical that the coats of arms only slowly emerged much later, since the many versions and copies of the original portrait from London that were created afterwards all have a plain (dark) green background without motifs. Another unexplained aspect is the dark vertical line, which is usually interpreted as the corner of the room. But why is this not seen in the other versions of the painting? There are thus some unanswered questions to this day, which makes the painting seem all the more mysterious.

Finally, let us understand what the painting's special role within art history is. Those who study the reception of the portrait of Julius II quickly realise that it was above all the artifice of placing the pontiff's chair slightly diagonally to the viewer and showing the portrayed person up to the knee that was formative for later works of the same type of painting. There are hardly any possible models in the field of portraits of rulers or even the pope on which Raphael could have drawn. The few examples include representations of popes from the 14th century - although these are not specifically portraits - as well as those of Zeus. A reference to the latter does not seem obvious at first, but there could be a deliberate allusion to antiquity if Julius II was to be staged as the beginning of a new era, the golden age. In any case, many rulers, including most of the popes, were portrayed in the same way in the following centuries, based on the painting by Raphael. So if you google "Pope painting" or similar keywords, you will find various works by artists such as Titian (Portrait of Paul III, 1543), Caravaggio (Portrait of Pope Paul V, 1605), Velazquez (Portrait of Pope Innocent X., 1650),Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein (Portrait of Pope Pius VII, 1817), Philip Alexius de László (Portrait of Pope Leo XIII, 1900) or most recently Michael Triegel (Portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, 2010) always recognise Raphael and his portrait of Pope Julius II.

Raphael - Portrait of Pope Julius II.

Oil on poplar wood, 1511, 108.7 x 81 cm, National Gallery, London


Meyer zur Capellen, Jürg: Raphael. A critical catalogue of his paintings. Bd. 3. The Roman portraits, ca. 1508-1520. Landshut 2008.

Meyer zur Capellen, Jürg: Raffael. München 2010.

Sander, Jochen (Hg.): Raffael und das Porträt Julius' II. Das Bild eines Renaissance-Papstes. Petersberg 2013.

Sander, Jochen (Hg.): Porträt von Julius II. im Städel: Ein Papst für viele Fälle (06.11.2012), [14.05.2021]

Talvacchia, Bette: Raffael. Berlin 2007.

Zucker, Mark J.: Raphael and the Beard of the Pope Julius II. In: The art bulletin. 59. 1977, S. 524-533.


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