Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II

Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II, 1511, oil on poplar, 108.7 x 81 cm (National Gallery, London)
Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] Here we have “Julius II,” painted by Raphael. Julius II, the great patron of the High Renaissance, and it’s thanks to Julius that we have, oh gosh, so many things. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the Basilica of Saint Peter’s, Raphael’s frescoes in the Stanze.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:24] He was also a warrior. He financed that extraordinary building campaign through his military campaigns and through some excesses, in fact, ultimately, in the political realm.

[0:37] It will be Luther that responds against some of the excesses of the Church under this pope that will actually spark the Reformation.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] It’s hard for us to imagine a pope leading armies, and yet that’s certainly what Julius did.

Dr. Zucker: [0:52] Look at the way that he’s represented. He is a monarch. He sits on a throne. He wields power that is both spiritual and that is political.

Dr. Harris: [1:02] Absolutely. At this time, the papacy claimed political right to various lands in Italy. It actually wasn’t until the 20th century that the papacy, the Vatican, relinquished those rights.

Dr. Zucker: [1:14] In fact, the way the National Gallery in London dates this painting is because of the beard that he wears, which he wore in mourning for the city of Bologna, which he had lost in battle.

[1:24] The other issue is the way in which economic power and spiritual power are linked. Look at the size of the gems in the rings that he wears. Look at the crispness and the clarity with which those jewels are rendered. Compare them to the softness of the edging of the fur of his cloak and of the cap that he wears. I’m especially taken by the flowing, crisp lightness of…

Dr. Harris: [1:49] The crinkles.

Dr. Zucker: [1:50] Yes, exactly. The crinkles of that undergarment. I think what’s most striking and what’s most effective about this portrait is the psychology and the humanity of that face.

Dr. Harris: [2:02] He’s shown very thoughtfully. He’s not shown as a warrior at all. He looks down toward the right. His body’s turned a little bit off center. He’s depicted in a very human way, not as a all-powerful figure but as a man.

Dr. Zucker: [2:19] He’s not idealized. He’s older. He’s not beautiful.

Dr. Harris: [2:23] No.

Dr. Zucker: [2:25] He’s clenching his teeth. There’s a determination, a kind of inwardness of thought that’s being represented here that’s incredibly effective.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] And that I think is carried down into his hands, too, that with one hand he’s got a handkerchief, so there’s a softness there and a kind of thoughtfulness, even, in the holding of the handkerchief, which we can imagine being put up to the head, and the way that he clasps the arm of the chair more forcefully with his left hand.

[2:52] In a way, all sides of Julius’s personality emerge as we contemplate this picture by Raphael.

Dr. Zucker: [3:00] There are some other iconographic elements that are probably worth mentioning. You’ll notice that at the tops of the chairs there are these large upside-down acorns, and that refers to his actual family name, which means oak in Italian…

Dr. Harris: [3:12] Della Rovere.

Dr. Zucker: [3:14] Then there are — that have been painted out by Raphael — in the green background, you can actually see the keys of Saint Peter, the papal symbol.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] I’m also thinking about the way that red and green are complementary colors. This whole painting is about red and green also.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] It’s true, and that really does create a kind of intensity, a visual animation.

Dr. Harris: [3:37] I’m struck by the way that, as you said, [it’s] so in love with what the oil paint can do.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] Yes.

Dr. Harris: [3:42] Oil is a relatively new medium here in Italy in the High Renaissance, and the fur, the crinkles, the velvet, the gold, the beard, the way that the beard has a different texture than the crinkles, remarkable.

Dr. Zucker: [3:54] All these textures, that’s right. Look at the softness of the satin of his sleeve compared to the crinkles below. It’s really quite remarkable. The painting glows.

[4:03] [music]

Cite this page as: Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, "Raphael, Portrait of Pope Julius II," in Smarthistory, November 18, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/raphael-portrait-of-pope-julius-ii/.