Pope Julius II, Raphael (1511-12) | Culture | The Guardian

Pope Julius II, Raphael (1511-12)

Sat 25 Nov 2000 08.24 EST

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Artist: Raphaelo Sanzio of Urbino (1483-1520), called to Rome in 1508 to work in the Vatican. Along with Leonardo and Michelangelo, he took the hard, bright style of the early Renaissance and turned it into Europe's supreme art. In addition to divine talent, wrote the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari, he had grace, industry, beauty, modesty and excellence of character.

Subject: Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II (1443-1515), elected pope in 1503 after one of the shortest conclaves ever (he bribed everyone). He was a lover of war, who led his own armies; and a lover of art, commissioning some of the greatest works in western history: Raphael's decorated rooms in the Vatican and Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Distinguishing features: Julius doesn't look at you, as if he won't or can't bear to; and the aged, melancholy softness of his face only adds to the sense that his disapproval is terrible and final. This is God himself turning his head away, leaving us to depart miserably from his presence. When contemporaries saw it, Vasari wrote, they found it "so true and so lifelike that the portrait caused all who saw it to tremble, as if it had been the living man himself". The painting makes you feel like a terrified retainer called into the pope's presence for some savage dressing-down. Instead of shouting, he is too sad to speak, too disheartened to look you in the eye.

In fact, Julius was depressed because the city of Bologna had seceded from the papal states. He expressed his grief at this political disaster by growing a beard, imitating what Renaissance humanists had discovered was an ancient form of mourning. It is the beard that enables this portrait to be dated. It is soft and strong, milky-white yet bristling like a hog's hair paintbrush. The face from which it radiates has lined, sagging flesh yet its structure is forceful. There is a sensuality to the pope's ochre and bronze flesh. Only Raphael and Titian could make old men's skin as beautiful as this. On his hands are signet rings of emerald and ruby. He clutches a silk handkerchief, indicating his inward sensitivity. The golden acorns on either side of his head are family symbols. Beneath the green drapery in the background are traces of an earlier design of the papacy's crossed keys. It is the precise realisation of a person's physical presence that makes this painting so awe-inspiring.

Raphael's use of oil paint is almost unequalled in history. Look at the wrinkling of the skin as his left hand grips the throne, the flow of ruched, white fabric over his knees, the sense of his wiry body inside his robes. This is a self enthroned - the throne and robes are part of Julius.

Julius's image as bearded patriarch invites comparison with Michelangelo's Moses carved on the pope's unfinished tomb at the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome.

Michelangelo's Moses and Raphael's Julius both look past us, are seated in majesty over us, and have the power to judge us for eternity. Michelangelo said when he fell out with Julius he could feel the rope around his neck. Looking at Raphael's portrait, we are in the presence of unquestionable authority.

Inspirations and influences: Papal portraiture is a genre in its own right, in which the robes and throne of office set the subject apart. Popes are old, and painters with the task of glamorising them had to find ways to make age seductive. They did this through startling frankness about the nature of Machiavellian princedom. Raphael's portrait of Pope Leo X (1518-19) shows him with two cardinals in what looks like a scene of heavyweight intrigue. Titian's Pope Paul III (1546) has the pope engaged in similar top-level chicanery. Velazquez repeats Raphael's vision of the pope in throned majesty in his Pope Innocent X (1650).

Where is it? The National Gallery, London WC2 (020-7747 2885).