The radiance of Raphael

RAPHAEL had a boundless love for living and for painting. It poured forth like a limpid stream, making possible the creation of an incredible amount of very exceptional art. In visual imagination he was unsurpassed.

The radiance of the forms derives in part from their being imperceptibly abstract. He did not copy a sitter exactly or take the best features of various models; his practice was to adhere each time to a freshly conceived idea of beauty.

Born in 1483 in Urbino, a hilltop town in the eastern part of central Italy, Raffaello Sanzio began artistic training under his poet-painter father, who soon arranged to place him in the care of the famous artist Perugino.

Hearing of the magnificent drawings for frescoes that Leonardo and Michelangelo, in competition, had made on the walls of the large audience hall in Florence, Raphael dropped everything and hastened to the city. Barely 20 and even then a recognized master, he was ready and eager to be stirred by great art. The influence of Florence set the young talent on fire. Provincial sentimentalism gave way to the strong, elaborate, aristocratic, independent spirit of an innate taste quickly maturing.

In a few years the Vatican invited Raphael to Rome. There, in addition to wonderful frescoes, tapestries, and other large projects, he created important portraits and poetic fantasies. Florence owns 28 of Raphael's major works. Two of them, both universally loved, were painted in Rome at the height of his maturity: ''Woman of the Veil'' and ''Madonna of the Chair.''

Only sheer painterly genius can account for the delicate quality of these pictures; however, it seems Raphael's brush had the shaping power of a sculptor's chisel. Figures are so plastic they appear to extend out from the background toward us.

In ''Woman of the Veil,'' the lovely face with the haunting, steady eyes seizes our attention; then we become conscious of the exquisite mass occupying the lower portion of the picture. It is a sleeve, an extravagant and prodigious one. The material, heavy off-white silk enriched with gold, is crushed to capture meandering lights and shadows. It contrasts with the shiny white of the blouse and the flesh tones of the throat and face. Otherwise, the lady waits, tensely calm under the cone of the translucent silver gray veil.

The other picture, ''Madonna of the Chair,'' has been rated Raphael's greatest masterpiece and one of the perfect works of art in figurative

style. It was used by Italy for a 1983 postage stamp commemorating the 500th anniversary of the artist's birth.

Other master artists, among them Botticelli and Michelangelo, have made tondos (paintings in a circular form), but the results were never so happy as in this one. The figures, conforming to the circle, are so tightly connected that the bond of love between mother and child asserts itself simply, absolutely. Mary bends forward and gathers the infant Jesus on her lap; their heads touch lightly. The visual rhythm accents the motif of tender affection.

Chromatically, the painting is rich and warm. The mother wears a many-colored costume of the Roman folk, sky blue, rose red, dull green gaily embroidered; the baby's dress is gold in color. The wooden post, only indication of a chair, has ornaments of dark red.

Both paintings are actually picturesque caprices, not totally true nor wholly imagined. They express Raphael's superb, dreamy manner of going beyond actuality in a free rendering of charm and grace. Symbols of the taste 400 and more years ago, they are still fascinating in our time.

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