• France, Private Collection
Situated on the upper floor of the Vatican Palace in the north wing, the Chambers – Stanze – were chosen by Julius II as his new papal apartments, as he had little desire to live in the rooms on the lower floor which had been occupied by his predecessor, Alexander VI Borgia. According to Vasari, the Pope first wished to complete the few existing frescoes, works by Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli and Bartolomeo della Gatta, by engaging several artists, including Sodoma, Peruzzi, Bramantino, and Lotto. The arrival of Raphael, who was invited at the advice of Bramante in 1508, changed everything:
“received by Pope Julius II with all kinds of caresses, he went to work on the Room of the Signatura. […] This masterpiece excited the Pope’s admiration so much, that he had the works that had been executed in the other rooms by other painters destroyed, so that Raphael alone had the glory of replacing everything that had been done so far.”
Finished in 1511, the Room of the Signatura, so named because the court of the Signatura gratiæ was held here, was the beginning and pride of the whole decorative cycle. When Raphael took charge, it was the central room in Julius II’s apartment which served as a study and library. The iconographic program, established by a theologian or dictated by the Pope himself, is dominated by the exaltation of Truth and Virtue, by magisterially combining abstract allegories and a gallery of “illustrious men,” the traditional decoration of an Italian studiolo. Each of the four grand frescoes, which represent main facets of Humanist culture – Theology, Philosophy, Jurisprudence, and Poetry, – is first of all an extraordinary gathering of figures who are all heatedly involved in debate and in which the faithful characterization of each is given top priority.
The Dispute of the Holy Sacrament, title given by Vasari although it more accurately consists of the Triumph of the Eucharist, was probably the first fresco executed by Raphael for Julius II. It is separated into two levels, celestial and terrestrial, each has its own dynamic while being subject to a semi-circular organization around a central axis formed by the Holy Trinity and the Host. The drawings, a great number of which are conserved, make it possible to follow the stages of artistic creation, and especially the distribution of the figures on the lower level. An ink drawing conserved in Frankfurt thus shows the part that is left of the altar perfectly arranged in rows of seated, kneeling, and standing figures.
In order to break this linearity, Raphael introduced a bearded figure seen from the back into the fresco. He stands on the steps to the left of Saint Gregory the Great. Barefoot, clothed in a green tunic and draped in sky blue, his index finger pointing towards Saint Gregory’s Liber moralium, he remains unidentifiable, both an ancient theologian and an apostle descended among men. Raphael, in fact, reused this figure to incarnate the Apostle Paul in two of the Vatican tapestry cartoons realized between 1515 and 1516 (Saint Paul Preaching in Athens and The Blinding of Elymas (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, inv. Royal Loans, 7 and 8.)
Saint Paul’s name was also formerly given to our drawing, a fact which confirms the fascination this monumental figure exercised, and still does, as he seems to incarnate by himself alone the indomitable steadfastness of Christian dogma. This sheet, realized by an artist who certainly was able to gain access to the Pope’s private apartments while the work was still in process, was produced shortly after the fresco was finished. In fact, it differs too much from the engraving drawn from the Dispute by Giorgio Mantovano Ghisi in 1552 for that to have been used. Its surprisingly large format also leads to the same conclusion.
It consists of an ink study executed rapidly but with attention so as to conserve Raphael’s subtle play of light as he modeled the draperies by shading the colors while adding his own very personal and original interpretation. For our artist endowed this drapery – which seems to preoccupy him the most, as opposed to the hair which is simply contoured - with turbulent folds which are absent from the original and have some tendancy to remind us of the those which Daniele de Volterra preferred. In a technique close to engraving, volumes are handled by associating parallel lines made by the pen which follow the forms and intersect in the shadows, and untouched parts, which confer the appearance of antique sculpture to the figure.