Raphael Sanzio’s rooms in the Vatican

by Victor Grigore, Webphoto.ro

The tour through the Vatican Museum walks tourists through the countless sections that include Egyptology, ancient sculpture, tapestry, oil paintings. Before the high point represented by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which is always the last point of the typical tour, the visitors meet the marvelous successive rooms covered with frescoes by Raphael and his students. For some, including myself, the perfection of some frescoes in these rooms even surpasses that of the Sistine Chapel. That is probably because Michelangelo was primarily a sculptor and not a painter and because the works of Raphael maintain a classical balance and human proportions. The masterpiece of the tens of frescoes in these rooms can be considered The School of Athens, depicting Plato, Aristotle and numerous other scholars from antiquity and middle ages.
There are four main rooms (stanze, in Italian), known either by their function or by the most famous of the frescoes inside:
Stanza della Segnatura (where important documents were signed by the pope) Important paintings here are: The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, The School of Athens and Parnasus)
Stanza di Eliodoro (where private audiences were held) Important frescoes here are: The Expultion of Heliodorus from the Temple and The Meeting of Leo the Great with Attila.
Stanza dell’incendio del Borgo (used for meeting the highest court of the pope) Important works here are: The Fire in the Borgo, The Coronation of Charlemagne, The Battle of Ostia, the ceiling painted by Pietro Vannucci Perugino.
Sala di Constantino (being the largest of these rooms, was used for grandiose receptions) Famous works here include: The Vision of the Cross, The Battle of the Milvian Bridge, The Donation of Constantine, The Baptism of Constantine.

Pope Julius II was in office for only ten years, but in that decade he started artistic and architectural projects that would define the Vatican for centuries to come. Likewise, Raphael, who died at age 37, only had the time to create some masterpieces and leave sketches for most of the frescoes finished by his talented students.
While debating the purpose of these expensive chambers of Belvedere Palace, some scholars note pope’s genuine taste for art and luxury, but it’s hard to ignore the usage of art as means of communication. Some elements are part of obvious Vatican propaganda and may include invented elements, such as the miracle performed by a pope when stopping a fire in Rome or the baptism of emperor Constantine, which in reality took place at best on his deathbed. Papal propaganda was focused on religious, political and cultural elements.
Many of the paintings in Raphael’s Rooms have the purpose of supporting some disputed theological doctrines of the Catholic Church. Some, such as the teaching about the Holy Trinity, were already settled during the ecumenical councils in the 3rd and 4th centuries, with only minor differences with the Orthodox Church. The lavish spendings for San Peter’s cathedral and the Vatican Palace, supported by donations and selling indulgences along with other historic differences triggered the Reformation movement of Luther and Calvin. Thus many themes appear as polemic against those who questioned the “infallible” decisions of the Vatican. Such is the case with the doctrine of adoration of the Virgin Mary, presented in one fresco in the middle of the Holy Trinity. Catholics and Orthodox share a special veneration for what they both call “Mother of God”, to this the Vatican adding two dogmas in the 19 and 20 century: the dogma of Immaculate Conception, stating that Mary was herself born without sin, and that of the Assumption of Mary, stating that Mary raised to Heavens like Jesus did, in body as in spirit.
The Disputation of The Holy Sacrament is a fresco the Room of the Signature, organized on two horizontal levels. Bellow, theologians, priests and intellectuals debate the doctrine of the Transubstantiation. Based on the Gospel passage presenting the Last Supper, this doctrine embraced by Catholic and Orthodox church claims that during the Holy Eucharist bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ, though maintaining physical attributes of the matter. Important portraits appear among the characters debating this, including poet Dante Alighieri, architect Bramante, the preacher Savonarola, theologians Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Thomas d’Aquino and several popes. Above this, occupying two thirds of the fresco is a representation of the Heavens, proving the validity of the Catholic doctrine. The Father delivers His blessing from the topmost point of the painting, with the Son and the Holy Spirit in the traditional form of a white dove in successive vertical layers. Jesus Christ is sitting on the Judgment throne, with Mary and John on each side. The patriarchs and the apostles are further away on the sides, among them: Moses, Abraham, David. The fresco is also supposed to present the two sides of the Church, the visible and the heavenly one as united. The fresco is found on the opposite wall of the School of Athens, in what is probably the most beautiful room of the four. Each side of the room is symbolic, representing theology, reason, good and beauty.
The continuity between Christian civilization and Antiquity is another important theme present in the Rooms of the Vatican Palace. It is probably the place from where we have the most colorful representation not only for religious figures but also for ancient philosophers and medieval thinkers, including Rafael’s self portrait. The idea of beauty according to the classical taste is represented by the Parnassus. This is a composition based entirely on pagan and mythological traditions, having in its center Apollo, the sun-god, surrounded by muses of various arts. Enemies of the Vatican pointed out the perpetuation of ancient astrological symbols and beliefs from solar religions in elements such as the Egyptian obelisks, the round auras of the saints, the day for celebrating Christmas in the day Sol Invictus was celebrated in Rome. The name Vatican itself comes from a hill in Rome who’s name derives from “fortune teller, seer”. Coincidentally or not, the wall on which Parnassus is painted has a window toward Mons Vaticanus, a hill dedicated to Apollo. A large statue of Apollo was brought here by Pope Julius II and can still be seen in the yard of Belvedere Palace. The face of that ancient god, associate with male beauty and glory, was used by Michelangelo as a model for drawing the physiognomy of Jesus Christ in the Last Judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel. A link between the classical world of Antiquity and the Christian world, Dante appears both Parnassus and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, wearing a laurel wreath, awarded to the winners in Olympic competitions and worn by Apollo.

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