Raphael Crucifixion

by John Holbo on March 19, 2017

I want you to look at a picture and give me some responses to questions. The picture is Raphael’s so-called Mond Crucifixion. Here’s a large version. Kindly open it in another tab. Admire it for a minute in a mood of sophisticated discernment. (It’s a nice painting, so this shouldn’t be too painful.) Now stop looking at the picture and answer a few questions for me. Close the tab. Put the image from view.

You aren’t looking at the painting any more? Good! No peeking until I tell you!

1) How tall, relative to the central Christ figure, do you take the two angels to be represented to be? That is, how large do you suppose we are supposed to imagine them to be ‘in the world of the picture’?

A) About the same height as Christ.
B) Smaller.
C) Larger.
D) Much larger.

2) Suppose you took a thread and measured the height of an angel, and Christ, by laying the thread along the figure on your screen, from head to toe. Obviously if a figure is not straight the string will curve to follow the figure. That’s ok. We are looking for the length of the line/curve that gets you from head to toe. What do you suppose would be the height of the angel, relative to Christ, in this ‘right on the canvas’ sense?

A) About the same height as Christ.
B) Less than half as tall
C) Half as tall.
D) More than half as tall but not as tall.
E) As tall as Christ.
F) Taller than Christ.

3) Did you notice that the angels’ feet are on clouds which look to be in the distance – maybe over those distant hills? – but they are catching blood in their cups, so obviously they have to be both in the distance and in front of Christ. Some kind of Escher-style impossibility, then.

A) No, I didn’t notice that.
B) Duh, I noticed that.


4) Now that you see the Escher-type thing with the angels, do you agree it’s – you know – there?

A) No. You are crazy, Holbo. Those clouds are not normal-sized clouds in the distance; they are little hoverclouds, right over the saints. (Think Marty McFly’s hoverboard, but cooler.)
B) Yes. There is some kind of Escher-type thing going on. I see it. The angels are both far away and near, so maybe they are very tall and also quite short?

5) Do you think the Escher thing, if it’s there, affected your judgment of the angels’ height, per 1 and/or 2 above?

A) No
B) Yes
C) Maybe

6) Can you think of an earlier example of this sort of Escher-style impossible object construction in art? If so: what is it?

{ 55 comments… read them below or add one }


nnyhav 03.19.17 at 3:31 pm

1 B 2 C 3 B but why clouds? why not shadows? and why should angels respect human dimensions anyway? anyway Escher it’s not, thus 4 A 5 A … and 6 lack of respect of dimension common not just to religious / mythological allegorical painting but esp to alchemical and kabbalistic illustration innit?


Minivet 03.19.17 at 3:35 pm

1. A
2. D
3. A
4. A – Sure, the clouds look far away, but it’s not like there’s a particular and distinct look expectable of little angel-bespoke hoverclouds. Especially in the symbolic world of the painting.
5. A
6. –


Chris 03.19.17 at 3:35 pm

My answers:
1. B (smaller)
2. D (more than half as tall, but not as tall)
3. B (No, I didn’t notice that)
4. Yes, it is for sure there. The way the angels are standing on their toes makes it very clearly intended.
5. No, since I didn’t notice it at all.


John Holbo 03.19.17 at 3:54 pm

Thanks for comments. Keep ’em coming. Minivet is the first of many (I predict) to object that the picture may need to be read more symbolically. I cheated a bit by omitting that possibility, sort of forcing you into an ‘if you read it non-symbolically – in perspective – how do you see it ?’ box. Even though I admit that may not be right. Perhaps I should go back and add another option for Q4.

C. It’s symbolic! (You aren’t supposed to worry about the perspective problem.)


Glen Tomkins 03.19.17 at 4:10 pm

1) B
2) B
3) A
4) lean A
5) A
6) consult a specialist

What I mean by my answer to 6), is that the difference in size is more likely to relate to iconographic convention than any attempt to create Escher effects, to mess with the viewers sense of space.

The four humans have halos because they are also saints, and therefore we know that they now sit at the right hand of God. Christ has the special halo because, while human at the time depicted, He is actually one of the Persons of the Trinity. In a similar convention, angels are depicted as smaller than Christ because Christ is a celestial being at the same time as a human being, and the convention is to depict lesser celestial beings as smaller than the actual Deity.

Where we need the specialist is in helping us sort out when and where this convetion of different sizes held. Angels attending on the Deity are sometimes depicted as children, the classic cherubs. Is this to get a size difference, but fob off the size difference as the difference between adult and child size? You see that if you depict the angels as adults, making them smaller than the Deity creates a jarring effect. Among other difficulties, it messes with the chief method that painters have to create an illusion of depth, relative size of objects.

Was Raphael painted into a corner by this size difference convention, plus his decision to portray the angels as adults? Maybe he thought it would be inappropriate to have child angels gathering the sacred blood. It is possible that the footstool clouds are a little nod to the difficulty, a sort of Escher style joke. But here too the specialist might help us by saying whether or not there was any sort of convention that floating angels had to have some sort of cloud to stand on. If not, perhaps Raphael is messing with us. But if so, he’s just stuck with a convention.


John Holbo 03.19.17 at 4:25 pm

Thanks, Glen. I deliberately avoided attempting any art history erudition in the survey itself. Let people just respond without trying to bend them one way or the other. But I’ll mention now that Raphael added the clouds himself. Here is the version his teacher, Perugino, painted:


Note as well that Raphael actually shrank his angels a bit. They are smaller than Perugino’s.


Neville Morley 03.19.17 at 4:37 pm

Non angeli sed anguli.


Yan 03.19.17 at 4:40 pm

I’m inclined to think these questions smuggle in presuppositions that might be false.

Why assume the artist intends every element to be part of some “real world of the picture”? If I look at a family crest, it wouldn’t make sense to ask: is the sword supposed to be the same size in real life as the goat? If I look at the Beatles’ Revolver, it’s strange to ask, are the small photographed heads meant to be further in the distance than the large drawn heads? If so, then are they resting impossibly on those foreground heads or just hovering in the background? In a still life full of symbolic objects: a skull, an apple, a hat, a roasted pig, a book, etc., arranged on a table, should I imagine a real world of the painting background narrative that explains how this weird assortment of objects arrived here in some realistic process of events?

The artist not only does not need to intend a depicted spatial arrangement. But he also need not either intend it or not. Are the foot clouds in the background or small and foreground? I’m inclined to say neither.

The artist makes them fit the background for purely visual, aesthetic reasons, to keep the disparate elements from disrupting the visual unity. But this isn’t the same as making a duck-rabbit or an Escher–it isn’t a desire to make it seeable either way or to trick the viewer’s perspective, it just looked better.

I used to hang around serious artists and they have more in common with a high schooler doodling lightning bolts around a Metallica logo than the wordy, cerebral types that comment on art. Are the lightning bolts coming from the logo? I dunno, looked cool.


steven t johnson 03.19.17 at 5:24 pm

Didn’t see the blood dripping into the chalices, even as I wondered what they symbolized.

The cloudlets were arbitrary grounding of the figures I thought.

I figured the angels were invisible to the onlookers below, which makes their position kind of moot.

On the other hand, as peculiar as the perspectives really are when pointed are, the thing that struck me as so ostentatiously symbolic was the sun and moon overlooking the crucifixion side by side. Especially since the moon was full, crescent and new, all at the same time, if I decode the shading correctly.


Doctor Science 03.19.17 at 5:47 pm

Comparison with the Perugino convinces me that Raphael absolutely intended an Escher effect. A quick google-image scan suggests that it was never (or rarely) imitated. It *is* disturbing, and I’m sure it was intended to be: to make the eye *feel* that the angels are an intrusion of the supernatural into the world, that they’re not on the same plane as the rest of the figures.

Great insight!


Glen Tomkins 03.19.17 at 6:15 pm

Perugino is messing with time, as you can see the sun both before and during the eclipse, but the lesser disparity in size between his angels and his Christ makes for a lesser degree of fooling with space. You’re right, no clouds in the Perugino version, and my non-specialist recollection is that I’ve never seen another example of a convention that floating angels need clouds to stand on.

This implies that Raphael is messing with us, and the conventions, intentionally. He shrinks the angels to make the conventional size difference really conflict with the perception of depth, then he adds clouds of ambiguous distance to underline the conflict.

Again relying on my non-expert recollection of the conventions, earlier artists tended to cram events from different times together into the same scene. They would sometimes have a temporal series of different panels, such as we are used to today with the conventions of the comics, but they would also bend time by depicting events from different times in the same panel, such as Perugino does here with the sun.

Of course, the overall difference between Perugino’s take and Raphael’s is that Perugino crams all sorts of symbolic stuff into his depiction of physical reality. He even has the symbolic scene from the seal of Louisiana sitting on top of the cross. Raphael has gotten rid of most of that allegorical and symbolic stuff.


Maria 03.19.17 at 6:21 pm

1 B
4A I read the scale thing as the angels being a) female so habitually depicted much smaller than the male lead (see the ‘they were the same height’ postage stamp images going around twitter of Prince Charles & Diana for a contemporary example), and b) them being angels somewhere along the scale between cherubim and seraphim. But I see your point. It looks weird. You have totally ruined Raphael for me.


Yan 03.19.17 at 6:39 pm

This thread raises more interesting questions about psychology than art. Why are many so invested In believing it’s an intentional effect and, more do, not a casual intended aesthetic choice, but one with some deeper purpose, such as underlining some point about theme and content?

Why is it not enough to note that it’s interesting and does, even if accidentally, suit the content? Why go so far as to produce empirical or historical evidence of intention–how reliable can evidence of the mysterious interior of the artist’s mind really be, and what’s lost if it’s an accident?

My best guess is that we are heavily invested in the myth of artistic genius–so to value the artist and the work we need to identify some innovation, some hidden or subtle insight not evident to the casual viewer–that justifies artistic praise, an aesthetic version of merit or deservingness that follows the logic of moral responsibility.

That, in turn, pays dividends to us, the recognizers of true genius, who gain merit from our recognition of merit that others fail to see.

This painting is a great example because in an overt way it thematizes this desire for a deeper, more subtle, higher value and world that only the truly virtuous see and appreciate. They’re world had angels and priests, we have artistic geniuses and brilliant art critics. I want to believe.


Lenoxus 03.19.17 at 7:54 pm

Obviously, the angels are engaging in a variant of the ol’ look-at-me-holding-up-the-Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa style trick photography. The open question is whether they are hovering just above some distant clouds to maintain the illusion, or are standing on them while pretending to catch the blood in the chalices. (Or both!)


Scott P. 03.19.17 at 8:12 pm

“Can you think of an earlier example of this sort of Escher-style impossible object construction in art? If so: what is it?”

One example might be the mosaic of Justinian in San Vitale, Ravenna, in which he is both in front of and behind the adjacent Bishop Maximian.


SusanC 03.19.17 at 8:43 pm

I’m thinking the picture as a whole is not supposed to be “read” as Renaissance-style linear perspective: there is no single viewpoint, and sizes of figures denote their status/importance to the narrative, rather than the angle they subtend at the viewpoint… So:

1. We don’t have any information about the size of the angels in the eidetic reality of the picture (indeed, the notion that there is such a thing is a bit problematic, especially with respect to angels).

2. C

3. A

4. Maybe. Or they’re not actually standing on the clouds, they just happen to be visually line up with their feet.

5. A.

6. I think there has to be some attempt at linear perspective — at least locally within the picture — for us modern viewers to try reading it as if it were by Escher. Which puts something of a bound on the earliest possible example. I guess this question could be rephrased as: how long after the invention of linear perspective did it take before artists started playing games with it?


oldster 03.19.17 at 8:49 pm

My thought is rather like STJ’s above: he first painted the angels free-floating, without clouds, and then decided that the viewer would be able to make better visual sense of them if there were artificial ground-lines under their feet. Hence the clouds. But he is not representing them as standing on the clouds, so they do not have to be in physical proximity to the angels.

Different question: Joseph holds his left hand awkwardly, with middle and ring fingers straight, but the pinky-finger contracted and crooked. It is not a natural way to hold your hand–try it and you’ll see. I have seen that hand-gesture in other art of this era: where?


JanieM 03.19.17 at 9:05 pm

Joseph holds his left hand awkwardly, with middle and ring fingers straight, but the pinky-finger contracted and crooked. It is not a natural way to hold your hand–try it and you’ll see.

My left hand looks a lot like that. It’s an old basketball injury. ;-)


Bryan 03.19.17 at 9:12 pm

The angels are standing on far away clouds and bending down to catch the blood, they are able to do this because they of their angelic powers, here is another example of these powers in action http://searchwordpuzzles.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Justice-League-Plastic-Man.jpg


M Caswell 03.19.17 at 10:07 pm

I saw the angels as small, because I was struck by the collection of the blood in the chalices, and so interpreted them as in the same plane as the cross. Also, the chalices seem appropriately large for them, if they (the angels) are diminutive. If you step back and imagine the painting with full-sized adult angels, the composition gets overcrowded and top-heavy.

I can’t figure out what’s going on with those clouds, though. Here’s one idea: they are puffs of mist (in the foreground) that block the angels from the view of the earthly witnesses. None of the figures in the painting seem to see the angels.


Alan White 03.19.17 at 11:38 pm

3. B (I took this to signify them as heavenly creatures)
4. MayB A
5. A
6. No

On my first careful observation of the picture I did notice that the left angel seemed fixed on one blood-task, but that the right one was looking below; the two closest people below were in some sort of adoration, but the two outside were looking at the viewer. The appearance of both sun and moon icons struck me as some sort of symbol of eternity. Looking at it again, only the angels and Christ have ribbons from garments swirling in the air, and all have some red apparel but the left angel–but who also oddly seems to have a redness to its wings. The main background seems to have appropriate perspective–that I think adds to your argument that the clouds beneath the angels are meant to be ambiguous in perspective.


Michael 03.19.17 at 11:58 pm

Thanks for this. Somewhere in C.S. Lewis, probably a book of his planetary trilogy, he describes an angel appearing. It has stuck in my mind all these years because it conveys a similar momentary intersection of two worlds. For though the character in the book to whom the angel appears is standing upright in our normality, gravity pulling the character down routinely to the earth and holding his head above his shoulders, the angel appears (this is roughly Lewis’s description as I remember it) as though he, the beholder, is standing askew, and that it is rather the angel who is standing upright, and so bringing a wholly otherworldly and more real orientation from a more real and vivid world, beside which this world’s gravity seems nearly weightless and weak by comparison. This has always seemed to me a splendidly sensual and powerfully imagined mysterium tremendum.

That’s what the two angels in the Raphael are doing, with their decoratively flourished ribbons, their windblown raiments (surely a wind blowing from beyond), their delicately poised vials of blood, and their suggested cloudy floorings, which are of another reality, a reality in which our perception of near and distant is weak and confused.


John Holbo 03.20.17 at 12:32 am

“Obviously, the angels are engaging in a variant of the ol’ look-at-me-holding-up-the-Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa style trick photography.”

I thought about mentioning this! As you might guess, I’m writing something about this, and in the thing I’m discussing forced perspective – the tourist Pisa tower trick, perpetrated in endless photos. But I think it’s interesting that this is perhaps the least visually salient reading. If we see the clouds in the distance, we see the feet in the distance (so long as we focus on the clouds.) We don’t see feet-cloud as some coincidental visual tangency between two widely separated objects ‘in’ the picture.


errg 03.20.17 at 12:35 am

1. A
2. B
3. A
4. B
5. A
6 –


Ada Palmer 03.20.17 at 12:40 am

This reminds me of John Shearman’s observations in a seminar I took with him about Raphael’s Disputa, the representation of Theology on the wall opposite the School of Athens. There are concentric semicircles of saints, one on the ground, one in the sky, and they appear to be the same size right above each other. But there’s an altar in the middle (they’re debating the miracle of transubstantiation) and the vertical rays from the dove down to the altar make it clear that the altar is at the back edge of the lower semicircle, on the circumference of that circle, but is directly below the center point of the upper semicircle, which means that the upper one has to be far back relative to the lower, and the figures there have to be giants relative to those below. It’s incomprehensible perspective, probably trying to reflect how difficult it is to understand theology without Revelation, in contrast with the perfectly measurable and diagrammable perspective of the School of Athens on the opposite wall, representing how the senses and Reason are enough to understand philosophy. Raphael is so great!


J-D 03.20.17 at 1:01 am

1. I have no idea. I don’t know how big Raphael thought angels were.
2. D
3. A
I didn’t notice the clouds at all until after you drew my attention to them. I noticed the objects the angels were holding but I didn’t recognise them as cups until you after you drew that to my attention.
4. Well, there’s definitely something weird. I look at the clouds (once you’ve drawn my attention to them) and I think ‘Those are weird, what kind of clouds are they supposed to be?’
5. C Maybe …
… but probably not, because I didn’t notice the clouds at all to begin with, nor did I realise that the angels were supposed to be catching Jesus’s blood in cups.
6. No, I can’t, but perhaps my earlier answers have already suggested that I’m not a very visual person.


John Holbo 03.20.17 at 1:12 am

Hi, Ada! Thanks so much for that. That’s a fantastic example and helps me a lot because two examples are more convincing than one when it comes to establishing that something is an element of technique. I have stared at “Disputa” without ever noticing about the implied mismatch in perspective between the upper and lower circles. It’s faint and unobtrusive, but surely deliberate.

Love your novels, by the by.


David of Yreka 03.20.17 at 1:21 am

B, C, A, A.

Looking at the picture, I thought, hmm, there’s a bit of medieval perspective leaking into the Renaissance here. At that point it was well, what can you expect.

In hindsight I suppose it’s also possible that someone told Raphael what was wanted: one imagines some bullying and tasteless patron saying, “It has to have two angels standing on clouds”. At that point what’s an artist to do?

But what really struck me was that all of the visible feet *except* the ones drawn in profile look like someone was having trouble drawing toes; or perhaps the models available to Raphael were all survivors of bad footwear. I don’t know: was Raphael one of those artists who let apprentices do the noncritical nuts and bolts? So to speak.


John Holbo 03.20.17 at 1:21 am

Glad you liked the post, Michael. I don’t know the C.S. Lewis passage in question but I agree that Raphael is going for the ‘intersectional mismatch between worlds’ thing (call it what you will.) In a way, this amounts to finding a way to maintain medieval no-perspective conventions while simultaneously being truer to correct perspective constructions. You find a way to represent the visually impossible while staying nominally within the bounds of linear perspective construction. Raphael’s angels are at once more medieval – they are smaller – and more ‘modern’ (post-Albertian) insofar as they are even more carefully and deliberately constructed, according to perspective rules.

Also, in medieval painting/panels you so often have the upper-lower split – two worlds. It’s nice if you can unify the perspective of the whole canvas while still maintaining a sense of that split, which medieval painting powerfully imparts.


John Holbo 03.20.17 at 1:24 am

Thanks also for the Justinian and Maximian and Plastic Man examples – Scott and Bryan.


John Holbo 03.20.17 at 1:50 am

Another note on “Disputa”:

Raphael has really gone out of his way to insist the Putti are forward from the upper semicircle by having two of them lying almost flat – like Superman flying towards us. Also, the relative position of the cloud bearing Christ, Mary and John the Baptist is a bit hard to read. It could be nearly on top of the dove or some distance behind the dove. If it’s behind the dove, then the rear of the upper semicircle needs to be yet further behind – since it is obviously behind Christ, Mary and John.


JimV 03.20.17 at 2:38 am

The great Jack Kirby would have had no difficulty drawing the angels in perspective with their feet far away and smaller and the shoulders nearer and larger.

They looked about half the size of Jesus and nearby to me, although I did notice the little clouds. I didn’t realize the cups were catching blood, but saw the old guy was. Too bad none of it was saved – we could do DNA testing: partly Mary’s genes and partly __?


Doctor Science 03.20.17 at 2:48 am

To those who wondered about the Sun and Moon, above: that’s an iconographic convention that goes *way* back — here it is in a 6th Century crucifixion — reminding the viewer of the “darkness over the earth” during the crucifixion, and also I think of Joshua’s day, when the Sun and Moon stood still.


ZM 03.20.17 at 4:06 am

Oh what a nice painting!!

“6) Can you think of an earlier example of this sort of Escher-style impossible object construction in art? If so: what is it?”

This bridal chamber The Camera degli Sposi has frescoe illusions, it was made by Andrea Mantegna from 1465 to 1474 and us supposed to be the first time since the Antiquities that such artistic illusions were used.


Other early artworks with illusions are this 1533 work by Hans Holbein the Younger, Tha Amassafors, also with imagery suggesting two layers the heavens and the earth, with a weird distorted blur in the middle that turns out to be a skull but you have to look at it from a certain angle to see.

Another one is a famous secret painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie after his defeat, where people put a reflective glass on a tray with a blur, and the blur’s reflection is a Bonnie Prince Charlie image who they secretly toast to using this illusion truck device thing, so other people who aren’t in the know, like Stonemasons or a secret handshake club, don’t know what they are doing.



vasilis 03.20.17 at 9:47 am

I am looking very closely at a very large resolution repro of the painting and this whole comment appears completely incomprehensible. The upper semicircle can be “behind” the altar and yet the distance can be such that no implication of “giants” is necessary. In fact, in that upper semicircle, the figures at the edges are smaller than the figures closer to middle, and presumably the figures hidden by Christ would be smaller still. So the more reasonable and straightforward explanation is that indeed the dove is right above the altar, the altar is indeed not in the center of the lower semicircle but at the circumference, and the upper semicircle is slightly recessed, kind of like in an auditorium where the back row is not directly above the front row, obviously. No need and no implication that the upper semicircle is taken up by giants. In fact, the auditorium full of saints debating seems a really apt analogy.


Paolo 03.20.17 at 9:49 am

My 2 cents.
4A vs 4B: false dilemma? The angels are close, the clouds are far away. The image is Escher-like only if you know Escher and are willing to look at the painting in those terms (I say “look at it” rather than “see it” because you can’tsee the illusion, only think about the 2 different interpretations). In Raphael times it would have been seen as a matter of composition, I guess.


idonthaveacoolname 03.20.17 at 10:58 am

Do you know the balancing of the clouds, the wondrous works of him which is perfect in knowledge?

Job 37:16


Trader Joe 03.20.17 at 1:04 pm

@31 Disputa
Not to digress to much to the Disputa, but the cloud upon which Mary, John and Christ rest is the Holy Spirit. Its meant to forma perfect triangle between God at the top, Christ in the middle and the Holy Spirit across the base.

Those into Masonic/Illuminati symbology will easily discern the “eye in the triangle” with the eye formed by the halo around Christ with his body as the pupil in the center.

Whether behind or even with the dove, I’m not sure. But there should be little question that its the Holy Spirit bearing aloft Mary, John and Christ and forming a trinity with God.


Kalkaino 03.20.17 at 1:47 pm

It’s a “nice” picture if one can ignore the valorized human sacrifice (with notes of cannibalism) and Pauline misogyny inherent to the world view it promotes. But other than that….

In answer to this: “6) Can you think of an earlier example of this sort of Escher-style impossible object construction in art? If so: what is it?”

Not exactly Escher but Orazio Gentileschi’s “Lute Player” at the National Gallery (Washington) has a very strange illusion incorporated. The violin resting on the table next to the woman will seem to point out at the view no matter where before the painting the viewer is. Alas the effect doesn’t read in photos and the picture isn’t hanging at the moment (though it soon will be):


Yan 03.20.17 at 3:13 pm

While I don’t think there needs to be a single, particular, identifiable intention on Raphaels’ part, playing the mind-reading game, I think this is a plausible thought process:
– these angels look two-dimensional, I should ground them to pull them into the scene
– shadows would make them look too weighty, fleshy, non-divine, I’ll use clouds
– small clouds hovering a few feet above everyone’s head is distracting and weird
– I’ll put them in the distance but below their feet so that it will have an effect of making the angels feel more present, even though the audience won’t notice why.
– good thing this is sneaky and subtle on my part, so no one will spoil the effect by pointing out this painting could be read as tripping balls and be silly and whiz bang neato rather than divine and holy.


Plarry 03.20.17 at 5:06 pm

For (6), I will suggest Giotto’s Exorcism of the Demons at Arezzo

(but I’m not an art historian)


Agnes Callard 03.20.17 at 5:12 pm

I basically had Doctor Science’s reaction to this post, and was wondering why there was so much resistance to an evidently excellent observation…and then I took close look at the painting Ada mentions, Raphael’s Disputa. If you check it out, you’ll see that 2 of the baby angels near the dove have little clouds under their feet that look just like those in the crucifixion painting. And in the Disputa, it’s clearly a case of hoverboard clouds–no suggestion that those could be in the background. Which makes me think they’ve got to be in the foreground in the crucifixion as well.

Still, the clouds are interesting. Comparison with the Perugino version reveals that Raphael was really interested in fixing his standing characters in place. He’s fine with free-floating angels when they’re flying, but if anyone is standing, he or she needs a place to stand on, even if he or she is an angel. What does this teach us about Raphael?


Andy Lowry 03.20.17 at 6:48 pm

Compare the heights of the kneeling figures, if they stood up, to those standing behind them. Perspective is not one of the triumphs of this picture.


Val 03.20.17 at 9:27 pm

When I first saw this post, I was travelling and looking at the picture on my iPhone, so I missed a lot of detail. I had the impression you wanted off-the-cuff (and as it turned out, ill-informed) comments, so here are my original thoughts.

And just to show off my ignorance, I thought ‘Raphael was a fairly early painter so wouldn’t have known much about perspective’ and also ‘in a religious painting, the divinity has to be larger than the angels’ (the latter thought is probably OK).

Anyway as I was travelling I thought ‘but wasn’t there perspective in the background?’ So I looked again and there was. Then I read a few comments and thought, hmm maybe I shouldn’t just show off my ignorance. So I looked at Wkipedia and found out that High Renaissance, not early, and good at perspective.

Looking at the painting no won the larger screen, what strikes me is that it’s like two paintings. There’s the front one, of the figures, which is almost in a flat plain, and is very fine and detailed. It seems to follow the older convention that important figures should be larger and higher.

Then there’s the back one, of the landscape, which is very soft, and a bit fuzzy, and almost sketchy in places, like some of the trees, but definitely has perspective.

So it’s almost like he is painting two pictures from different eras or genres, and the angels are the only part that’s in both – the flat religious foreground and the soft perspective landscape background. I don’t know that it prefigures Escher, exactly, but it’s certainly very interesting.


Val 03.20.17 at 9:37 pm

I see that David of Yreka @ 28 already said some of what I’m saying:
“Looking at the picture, I thought, hmm, there’s a bit of medieval perspective leaking into the Renaissance here.”

Didn’t read all comments carefully, sorry.


Another Nick 03.20.17 at 11:14 pm

John: “6) Can you think of an earlier example of this sort of Escher-style impossible object construction in art? If so: what is it?”

Plarry @ 41, close. It took me a while to find something, but I also had a good feeling about Giotto (~1300)

Vision of the thrones

Institution of the crib at Greccio

Plus, bonus hoverboarding angels :)


John Holbo 03.21.17 at 12:18 am

Hey, Another Nick, what’s the source for that third one? The hoverclouds? I can’t see it from the URL? There are other hoverclouds in earlier art, but those are some hecka-flaming ones.


John Holbo 03.21.17 at 1:06 am

Agnes “And in the Disputa, it’s clearly a case of hoverboard clouds–no suggestion that those could be in the background. Which makes me think they’ve got to be in the foreground in the crucifixion as well.”

This is reasonable but I would say this. First, the hoverclouds are not a thing Raphael pioneered absolutely. My point in linking to the Perugino was to show only that he very clearly deliberately added them to this one design (since Perugino has them just hanging there.) I think it’s fair to link their appearance (the hoverclouds), typically, to cases where medieval picture space is flat and indefinite. But I should research that.

The Disputa case is a tricky one. Some people are saying there is no way to see any perspective problems here and certainly no way to see the upper semicircle populated by giants on far-receded clouds. I agree that any ‘looks to me’ arguments here are non-binding. What looks to me might not to you. But here are my thoughts.


Our first read is that there are two semicircles, aligned up and down, with a prominent spot of gold at the far side of each (relative to the viewer).

We then notice this isn’t right. The gold below (the altar) is in the back of the semicircle but this is not so above (the dove/Holy Spirit is in the center above).

But the gold is obviously aligned up and down, so the semicircle above recedes … how much? to an indeterminate degree. The undersides of the upper clouds look like stormclouds in the distance, so I think there is a hint of far distances. The little hoverclouds fit with that. I think Raphael is trying to avoid any obtrusive sense that there are little angels scooting just above the heads of those below. He likes his little clouds to look like ‘real’ clouds – i.e. distant clouds – even as they are used for local, personal transport.

The figures in the upper semicircle are giants perhaps only in the sense that they are, on the canvas, a bit larger than the lower figures. If they are a bit larger AND slightly further away, they must be quite big. Giants in the basketball player sense, not the 100 foot tall sense.

But once you notice that the upper semicircle is receding to an indeterminate degree, you can play a little game with your eyes. You can sort of pull it in and push it out – and upsize or downsize the figures accordingly. I reiterate that this can’t be taken to extremes without conflicting with the overall composition and idea. It would be quite absurd for the upper figures to be giants, a quarter of a mile back (with the left wing of the cloud bank to be seen above those distant buildings on the left or something). That would make them bigger than God – and they don’t look like the Beatles to me. I would say only: Raphael has deliberately 1) planted a false, definite hint about the location of the semicircles then 2) engineered in a bit of visual wobble as to the exact location of the upper, relative to the lower. He is thus preserving a medieval sense that the upper sphere is separate from the lower while employing linear perspective – a powerful sense of depth – which would tend to destroy any such sense of separation.

I think I really set people off a bit with 4B “B) Yes. There is some kind of Escher-type thing going on. I see it. The angels are both far away and near, so maybe they are very tall and also quite short?”

Applied to the Disputa that would be too strong. And maybe with regard to the Crucifixion too.

I was trying to nudge people, to see which way they would tip – for survey purposes. But the truth is that you aren’t supposed to fall on either side, not definitely. So naturally people resisted the terms of my survey. Oh well.

We – and even more Raphael’s peers – would be accustomed to reading such scenes symbolically. When your sense of the space wobbles, perhaps even without you having a conscious sense of the cause of the wobble, you have a comfortable fall-back. You don’t proceed to explore some impossible space, a la Escher. You see a symbolic space while simultaneously preserving a strong sense of perspective space. So the conflict isn’t really between possible/impossible Euclidean geometries. It’s between symbolic/spatially literal visual readings.

As I said over on Facebook, saying Raphael is Escher-like is a bit like saying Leonardo invented impressionism because sfumato. There’s a kernel of truth to it but it seems so wildly exaggerated and historical one resists it. But that shouldn’t lead you to deny the kernel.


Another Nick 03.21.17 at 1:32 am

Hi John, I don’t know much about it, was just scanning through google image results.

Here’s the original link from wiki.

It looks to have been hanging at the Louvre around 2008-2010, based on this and a few other photos:



John Holbo 03.21.17 at 1:43 am

Giotto. (Should have just googled that myself, since it looked it. But I made you do it for me!)


Lee A. Arnold 03.21.17 at 11:48 am

Angels are not in space or time. Hence they are not in geometry! (Or else, since an infinite number can fit on the head of a pin, angels dance at non-Euclidean centers in partial differential manifolds.) Perhaps Raphael was just maintaining realism!


Yankee 03.21.17 at 5:22 pm

There’s no need for support clouds for angels … thses here even have wings. I perceive that theyserve to make the Christ figure monumental … he looms/receeds towards the sun and moon, far above the lake and hills. I suppose as installed one would look at it from below, which would enhance the effect.

Btw, I also noticed Peter’s (not Joseph) hands, actually all the hands look arthritic or awkward, perhaps suggesting helplessness or as we say “brokenness”. Shoudn’t art always be symbolic, or at least more than merely representational? I think so.


clew 03.21.17 at 9:32 pm


M Caswell’s supposition about the clouds is more dignified than mine. I wondered if the clouds saved Joseph, etc., from looking up the angels’ robes.


Another Nick 03.22.17 at 10:47 am

No probs, John. I found this interesting by Perugrino (pregnant angels, giant sky vagina!)

But also just came across this by Raphael’s first teacher, Giovanni Santi.

I think Raphael used it to more enhanced effect – but to answer your question, I think his dad predated him :)


Another Nick 03.22.17 at 10:49 am

Sorry, Perugino!

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