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Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles, c.1519-20, black chalk over pounced underdrawing with some white heightening, 49.9 x 36.4cm. Presented by a Body of Subscribers in 1846, Ashmolean Museum WA1846.209.

Arguably the most impressive of all Raphael’s drawings, this black chalk study of the heads and hands of two apostles exemplifies the ‘mute eloquence’ that Renaissance artists aspired to achieve in competition with poets and orators. The combination of moving facial expressions and articulate hand gestures conveys an immediate effect of ‘visible speech’, as Dante wrote in his Purgatorio when describing a sequence of three marble reliefs representing humility created by God. In the first of these, an Annunciation scene, the angel ‘appeared before us so truly … that he did not seem a silent image’ (Purgatorio, 10, 34-9, and 94–5). Raphael was no doubt aware of this famous passage in the Divina Commedia.

In addition, Raphael would have known of the antique precedents for describing painting as a form of ‘mute poetry’ from literary friends such as Pietro Bembo (see, for example, Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium, III, 346). Similarly, the presence of Leonardo da Vinci in Rome from 1513–16 would have brought him into renewed contact with the older artist’s theoretical ideas about the primacy of painting and its superior communicative powers based on a naturalism achieved through the study of optical effects and the body’s structure and movements. Raphael seems to have been prompted here to revisit his earlier fascination with Leonardo’s unfinished Adoration of the Magi altarpiece (1481, Florence, Uffizi).

Raphael created these studies for two apostles in the Transfiguration altarpiece (1516-20, Pinacoteca Vaticana) after he had resolved his final plan for the painting: he drew over the pounced dots that result from the transfer of the design from another sheet of paper. These can be seen most clearly in the left hand of the older man, where the artist radically altered the position of the thumb, but they are evident throughout (in the hair and beard, for example). In making these highly worked studies Raphael could continue to refine the expressive power of key rhetorical elements. He could also ponder how such elements would function within the elaborate system of indicative gestures and meaningful gazes that he had devised for this challenging subject.

This eloquence derives in part from his characteristic deployment of visual antithesis: the contrast of youth and age, of profile and three-quarter views of the face, of closed and enquiring hands with an open and accepting pair. Yet what unifies these differences, creating a resounding visible chord, is Raphael’s extraordinary handling of the black chalk, releasing its tonal and material qualities. His utter command of the medium ranges from the most carefully calibrated shading to firm and decisive marks – such as that defining the edge of the old man’s nose – to the freer lines and traces that vividly evoke hair. Through this virtuoso handling Raphael performs the integration of intelligence and gesture that is the essential subject of this drawing.

Ben Thomas, art historian

Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Date: Da Tuesday, May 26, 2020 a Thursday, June 04, 2020

Entrance : Free