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Raphael, Studies of a kneeling woman, c.1512, black chalk, 39.5 x 25.9 cm. Presented by a Body of Subscribers in 1846, Ashmolean Museum, WA.1846.198a.

Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

These accomplished black chalk studies are for a female witness to the miraculous intervention of an avenging angel to protect the treasures of the temple in the fresco of The Expulsion of Heliodorus in the Stanza di Eliodoro of the Vatican Palace. The kneeling woman is surrounded by a series of subsidiary studies that clarify details of hands, feet and head, and also elaborate the design of the figure’s headdress. Raphael alternated here between close observation of the model posing in front of him, and a tendency to develop forms autonomously. In particular, the complementary curves of the drapery folds reveal a certain bias towards abstraction: in other words, Raphael’s inclination to base naturalistic poses upon an underlying geometric armature, and also to elaborate on an expressive gesture by overlaying rhyming shapes or tracing spiraling vectors with cloth. An analogy with the art of rhetoric suggests itself, with Raphael acting like an orator in deploying different registers and styles of speech, and introducing novel, unusual or accented devices to enhance the effectiveness of persuasive communication. His art was figural, therefore, in a double sense. The figure gazes rightwards as if also directing the beholder’s attention in that direction. Her meaning is embodied through a fusion of enquiry and reaction into forceful counter-poised energy – all expressed through the drawing gestures of the artist’s hand.

Ben Thomas, Art historian