If there’s one question that frames Christian Kleinbub’s enquiry into the visual in Raphael, it’s this: how is it possible to reconcile the visionary in renaissance art with the rise of naturalism, amidst a context of historical picture-making and narrative art. An altar piece can be “read” as a narrative, but as Kleinbub argues in parts of this book, it’s also about how the artist presents, and represents a supernatural and religious vision- the not seen- to the viewer, as well as picturing the seen, the visible world in which such religious events supposedly occur. Kleinbub’s investigation demonstrates how Raphael was able to keep the two approaches in mind without his art falling into visual and thematic chaos.
Kleinbub’s book is especially welcome since the issues he discusses in this book are to be found at the margins of Raphael studies, which is more noted for its traditional methodologies like stylistic analysis and iconography rather than studies weighted more towards theories of visuality or the role of colour and perspective in making pictures signify. I’m not implying that Kleinbub is predominantly theoretical in this enquiry; on the contrary, he is meticulous in his examination of the details and motifs of the paintings that he selects for investigation, and succeeds in opening up new and persuasive avenues in the process. Yet his study owes a lot to that interface between traditional renaissance art history and work on French visual theory. As a contributor to a forthcoming volume on the latter, I find it very encouraging that Kleinbub is able to situate his enquiry within that lesser-known area of renaissance art history and theory that features such names as Arasse, Damisch and others.
One French art historian that Kleinbub has used in conjunction with his own thoughts on Raphael’s visionary paintings is Hubert Damisch, who has explored the idea of cloud in its iconographic, semiotic and figurative senses in his Théorie du Nuage. Pour une histoire de la peinture, of 1972. Kleinbub has many interesting things to say on supernatural manifestations like mandorlas and putti in relation to naturalised phenomena. Kleinbub demonstrates convincingly how Raphael learnt from the cleric-painter Fra Bartolommeo via his Lucca altarpiece (left) on how to go beyond the flatness of Perugino’s mandorlas in order to create what Kleinbub calls “the glowing cloud glory”, a cluster of putti, cloud phenomena and theological symbolism. This is a valuable addition to the scant literature on how meteorological realism, such as we find in the Madonna di Foligno (right), which has a comet in the background, and the invisible cloud children surrounding the Virgin, become part of a mechanism for making the invisible visible to the renaissance spectator.
That preliminary discussion is impressive enough, but it’s Kleinbub’s analysis of the School of Athens which may be the most innovative, and indeed controversial part of the book. In this section Kleinbub theorizes something called “the philosopher’s eye” because he wants to locate visuality firmly in the centre of the discourse of philosophy, to render wisdom an aspect of seeing rather than merely philosophical discourse or book learning. Kleinbub brings something new to the table with his point about why Raphael’s self-portrait is found within the School of Athens: it could suggest an alliance of painting and philosophy forged through perspective. Perspective in this context is not solely concerned with rendering figures and objects within the visual field, but also about transcending it. In line with his project to show how Raphael managed a dynamic between ascension and the terrestrial, Kleinbub argues for dialectic between skyscape and cityscape in the School of Athens. In viewing the infinite space through the veduta created by the perspective, the eye finds God. In this way veduta can be visionary as well as encircling the physical things in the world.
The next section of Kleinbub’s book deals with the themes of blindness and enlightenment in Raphael’s tapestry cartoons, particularly the Blinding of Elymas and Paul Preaching in Athens. In doing so, Kleinbub builds on John Shearman’s exhaustive exegesis of the sequence; but unlike that scholar, the author contextualises his enquiry within visuality, which hasn’t really been applied to the subjects of these designs. Kleinbub corrects this with some interesting readings of the two designs. In his analysis of the Elymas, Kleinbub links the blinded sorcerer and certain iconographical components with a failure of vision and the idea of idolatry. One of these compositional elements is a niche figure that appears on a pier in copies of Elymas created from Raphael’s original designs. Shearman affirmed that it symbolised Salus, Salvation, but he neglected to think about its placement within the lighting system of the design, not to mention its relationship to seeing. As this statuesque figure is bathed in light, and Paul stands next to it (in the copies adapted from the original), Kleinbub sees this representing Paul as the “Light of the Gentiles”, the light that Elymas cannot see. To cement this iconographical interpretation, Kleinbub cites the following passage from Acts (also used by Shearman, but obviously not within the visuality context). “I have set thee to be a light for the Gentiles: that thou mayest be for salvation (salus) unto the utmost part of the earth.”
After a chapter focusing on representation and such concepts as fantasia in relation to visuality in such pictures as Raphael’s St Cecilia and Vision of Ezekiel, Kleinbub inevitably arrives at the summit of Raphael’s achievements, and the pinnacle of visionary painting, the Transfiguration. This work can also be seen as enshrining the guiding question of Kleinbub’s thesis. How do we reconcile visionary art with the rise of renaissance naturalism and historiated picture-making and narrative ways of seeing. What helps a methodology such as this is the formally “split” nature of Raphael’s altarpiece, with its historiated lower register and its upper nigh-iconic effect of Christ levitating and facing the viewer amidst blinding light. When art historians attempt to unite the two halves of this composition together, they generally do so by turning to theology, demonstrating how the lower part and upper register are connected by such concepts as faith, despite the fact that they depict different biblical episodes. The sudden appearance of Christ as the disciples try to cure the sick boy is seen as an admonishment that they do not have the faith to cure the boy. However visuality and vision is central to the mechanics of this altarpiece, as Kleinbub shows. He makes good use of Konrad Oberhuber’s observation that the dark-haired apostle who points upwards towards the levitating Christ has his eyes closed, and thus is witnessing the Transfiguration inwardly. As Kleinbub notes, Oberhuber was first to introduce the notion of a “visual contest” in the lower register, since not all those down below have the necessary spirituality to see the vision. Some of the apostles see externally; the possessed boy is clearly seeing something different altogether; and a figure in profile in the shadows next to the sick boy’s father has his head bent back and his eyes closed, which according to the author indicates “visionary ecstasy.”
Kleinbub’s analysis of these figures is suggestive, but what I can’t understand is why he hasn’t commented on another face in shadow whose head is very close to the boy’s mother; he kneels in the dark, not with eyes shut, but gaze directed to the apostles on the viewer’s left. The first scholar to notice this ghostly figure was not an art historian, but a philosopher, Gary Schapiro, who in a book called Archaeologies of Vision, stated this obscured figure was the Cyclops to Christ’s Apollo, an idea inspired by reading Nietzsche. Away from the philosophical speculation, I wonder if it’s too fanciful to see this face in the gloom as Raphael himself? He has a beard and recalls Raphael’s self-image in the Louvre Self-Portrait with a Friend. If as Kleinbub maintains, Raphael “inserted his own subjectivity at the heart of this image”, it seems feasible that Raphael might have introduced his corporeal self engaged in the process of seeing.
Anybody interested in Raphael, or the broader topic of vision and painting in the renaissance, will find Christian Kleinbub’s book thought-provoking and worthwhile. It’s admirable that this author is able to bring visual theory, especially modern French thought, exegesis and pictorial analysis together in such stimulating ways. Most of all, Kleinbub deserves praise for showing how vision and visuality are indispensable for understanding Raphael’s artistic development and achievement.