Raphael's authorship in the 'Expulsion of Heliodorus.' (interpretation of court painter Raphael's mural)

Author:Schwartz, Michael

Pope Julius II commissioned his court painter Raphael to recount sacred history through his paintings in the early 16th century. Raphael began painting the famous mural 'Expulsion of Heliodorus' in the Stanza d'Eliodoro in 1511. The main literary text of the mural is King Seleucus of Asia who commands Heliodorus to take the great wealth in the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem. The murals show... (see full summary)


The history of the essence of Western art corresponds to the change of the essence of truth. - Martin Heidegger, "The Origin of the Work of Art"(1)

Introduction: Toward a History of Artistic Intention

One of the intractable questions concerning the visual arts today is the relevance of the artist in determining the meaning or significance of his or her work. Debates continue about whether artistic intention matters. Some proclaim that the only information that can legitimately be brought to bear on interpreting a painting is what corresponds to the artist's fulfilled intentions. Others insist that reference to the maker's mental state is simply unnecessary for understanding an image.(2) It remains unclear not only to what degree we might escape the orbit of either/or thinking on the issue, but also why in the first place we have become so concerned with defending or decrying artistic intention.

This essay inaugurates a historical approach to the problem. It downplays contemporary epistemological issues in favor of concrete inquiry into the emergence of artistic intention in Western painting. It proposes that we investigate how historical viewing audiences have understood the production of images.

In principle there is no one way of understanding how images are produced. Yet some sense of origination always underlies one's engagement with an image. A change in this sense may alter not only the content but also, more profoundly, what the image is understood to be. Take the Mona Lisa. If we construe the painting as having originated via contractual agreement between Leonardo and a Florentine merchant to paint the latter's wife and then go on to discover preliminary drawings, we would see the Mona Lisa as a portrait. But if we conclude that there was no such model, that Leonardo painted an imaginary figure from his fantasia, that would bring about a categorial shift; the image would no longer be a portrait.(3) Or if we come to realize that the picture before us was produced in the twentieth century by a paint-emitting machine that duplicates the facture of paint layer by layer, then we would see the work as some kind of chilling simulation of a painting.

Changes in our sense of the production of an image are not, however, as willful as the above examples might suggest. There are deeply ingrained practices or habits of such ways of understanding, even if these may be plural or in flux at any given moment.(4) By taking account of the ways audiences have understood the production of images, we might get a clearer picture of what is at stake in seeking, ignoring, or rethinking "artistic intention." In order to initiate such a project, I shall be analyzing Raphael's Expulsion of Heliodorus as a particularly focused moment in the emergence of the painter as an artist who "intends" pictorial representation [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. My operative assumption is that with the advent of postmedieval pictorial practices, the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw considerable flux in understanding the production of paintings.(5) There was in fact such flexibility in grasping who was responsible (patron, artist, deity) and in what ways (as donor, maker, creator) that the pictures themselves often offer models of how to comprehend their own production. It is to such internal models that we shall be looking for guidance.

Why the Expulsion of Heliodorus? Because this mural occupies a prominent and pivotal place in the Renaissance emergence of painter as artist - as the human agent essentially responsible for the visualization of religious themes. The Heliodorus's array of self-referential models posits authorship as complex, divided between the patron and painter. The patron, Pope Julius II, authorizes his court painter Raphael to narrate sacred history, and the painter, in turn, shows us the Heliodorus tale. Moreover, the painter's act of showing transfigures the visual reality of what he shows. This transfiguration, I argue, indexes the workings of the artist's mind as the most immediate ground of the metaphysical truth of the narrative. The Expulsion of Heliodorus thus presents an early instance of the painter as a "creative" artist who has the "divine" capacity to represent ideal truth. This study delineates the precise contours of this artistic economy.

Personal Style

The Expulsion of Heliodorus is located in the Stanza d'Eliodoro on the third story of the Vatican palace [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This room is part of a suite of apartments constructed in the quattrocento that, beginning no later than 1507, were remodeled and redecorated for private, ceremonial, and courtly functions.(6) Raphael began frescoing the Stanza d'Eliodoro in 1511; work continued after the death of Pope Julius II in 1513 and was completed in 1514 during the pontificate of Leo X.(7) One of the room's primary functions during the High Renaissance was as a papal audience chamber, although other rooms in the suite may have also served this purpose.(8) The early-sixteenth-century beholders of the frescoes would have been members of the papal court, along with a diplomatic corps of foreign ambassadors, a viewing audience undoubtedly among the most culturally elite and sophisticated in all of Europe.(9) We shall be concerned with how this courtly audience would have understood the Expulsion of Heliodorus as a visual narrative authored by Raphael - one where the terms of pictorial authorship are historically specific.

The primary literary pretext of the mural is 2 Macc. 3. King Seleucus of Asia, having learned of the great wealth in the treasury of the temple in Jerusalem, sent Heliodorus to remove this wealth. Even after learning from the high priest Onias that some of this money was destined for widows and orphans, Heliodorus announced that he would still follow his royal orders. On the day when he set out to take the riches, there was desperate prayer by the priests in the temple and by the people in the city. Their petition to the heavens was answered with the miraculous appearance of a horseman and two youths armed with whips, who fell upon Heliodorus and preserved the treasury.(10)

There are three basic groupings of figures in the Vatican mural. At the altar of the Sancta Sanctorum, Onias prays along with the other priests for Heliodorus's thwarting. At right, a moment later in time, the three divine avengers prohibit Heliodorus from stealing the monies. And at left, a mixture of historical and contemporary characters witness the historical action [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED]. These spectators include the widows and orphans, beneficiaries of the temple treasury, and a papal retinue, with Pope Julius II borne on the sedia gestatoria.(11)

The historical and contemporary figures in the group at left differ from one another in at least three ways. First, the clothing of the papal retinue is accurately of the period, that of the women and children less so.(12) Second, the contemporaries are relatively inactive and stationary, in contrast to the far more animated historical characters. Third, the papal group conveys a greater sense of immediacy than do the women and children.(13) This last distinction is generated in part through differences in modeling. The colors used for the historical spectators are paler, with modeling accomplished through broad areas of white highlights, the local garment colors in their most saturated state serving in many instances as shadow. In contradistinction, the contemporary figures have less bold areas of highlighting, darker shadows, a wider range of value contrasts, and hence deeper relief.(14) Yet despite different modes of modeling, the arrangement of lights and darks as well as the direction of cast shadows indicate that both groups share a common source of illumination.(15)

We need to discern the significance of the modeling modes. According to Leonardo's discussions on perspective, nearer objects are in general more detailed and distinctive than distant ones, often with stronger light-dark contrasts and hence bolder relief, whereas distant objects tend to be less plastic, bluer, and paler.(16) The respective modeling of the two groups of figures seems to correlate with these perspectival norms: the contemporary figures are darker in hue and fuller in relief, whereas the historical figures are somewhat less plastic, their paler and bluer coloration having associations with the sky view over the altar. I therefore would suggest that in the Heliodorus the modeling modes of the figures express a perspectival dimension such that the contemporaries are "closer" to us and the historical characters are "farther away." Spatial perspective becomes equated with temporal "distance." Although located next to each other at the same juncture in depth, the historical and contemporary groups are to be seen as not present to one another in time.(17)

Leonardo explained that the atmosphere intervening between eye and object helped cause the "distant" look of faraway objects(18) - and, indeed, the two classes of figures in the Heliodorus have their own "air" about them. The pictorial "airs" of the respective groups would have had a certain semantic resonance for the Vatican audience. In Italian Renaissance vocabularies of painting and poetics, aria was associated with maniera.(19) The two modeling modes in the Heliodorus would have been seen as differences in maniera. Some in the courtly audience were even in the practice of perusing drawings of a subject matter rendered in piu maniere (in several modes or styles); they would have been especially sensitive to this juxtaposition.(20)

It must be kept in mind that by the early sixteenth century maniera could take on some of the resonance of what today we speak of as personal style.(21) Style, however, is a slippery notion. Perhaps in its clearest usage the term signifies the array of features of an artifact that indexes some particular origin -...

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