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Raphael, Studies of two men on stairs, and a shouting head, c.1508-10, metalpoint with white heightening, partially oxidised, on pink prepared paper, 27.6 x 19.9 cm. Presented by a Body of Subscribers in 1846, Ashmolean Museum WA1846.191.

Two men meet on the stairs: one ascending, seen from behind, points backwards and to the left with both hands as if to say ‘look there’, while the other descending, seen in profile, twists round to indicate ‘over here’. In one of his most brilliant inventions Raphael juxtaposed two mobile and twisting figures, each embodying a contrasting impetus, and yet created from them a coherent unit of design. Working in metalpoint, his handling of this complex group is remarkably assured. One notable revision indicates an alternative position for the right hand of the descending man. Significantly elements of the drapery were drawn over the right legs of both men, particularly around their knees. This highlights how the drapery serves to unify the two figures, creating the formal effect of a double helix within a rhomboid and giving their contradictory movements a graceful resolution. Having established the overall conception, Raphael then clarified areas of detail in subsidiary studies – the curls at the back of the head of the ascending man, his left hand and the anatomy of his flexing foot. The artist also brushed on white to emphasise, for example, where a drapery fold would catch the light.

This study forms part of Raphael’s thinking on the School of Athens fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, which like the drawing is lit from the right. Neither figure has an iconographical significance, but they would perform the important function of engaging and directing the viewer’s attention, thereby enhancing the flow and legibility of the composition (in semiotic terms, a ‘shifter’ group). In the School of Athens the stairs connecting the two levels of the composition are part of the overall architectural setting – an impressive, open-air basilica that frames the antithetical pairing of Plato and Aristotle within what seems to be a series of triumphal arches. Here the men on the stairs make the proportional relationship between architecture and the human body a dynamic one. Interestingly the ascending man will reach the upper level leading with his right foot, as Vitruvius argued should be the case for those climbing the steps towards temples.

The impressive screaming head at the bottom right would appear as the head of Medusa on the shield of the fictive statue of Minerva in a niche to the right of the School of Athens. Raphael clearly enjoyed amplifying the shouting soldiers’ heads in his Florentine battle drawings to a mythical dimension – the snake-like hair pulsates with characteristic corkscrew lines.

Ben Thomas, art historian

Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford


Date: Da Friday, June 26, 2020 a Monday, July 06, 2020

Entrance : Free