This portrait of the careworn Pope Julius II (1443–1513) is usually dated to the one-and-a-half-year period during which he wore a beard. He grew it in 1510 as a token of mortification while recovering from a serious illness brought on by the loss of Bologna to the French, and vowed not to shave it off until French troops had been expelled from Italy, which happened in 1512. Julius was a great patron of the arts, commissioning Raphael to decorate the papal apartments in the Vatican and ordering the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome.
The two golden acorns on the Pope’s chair allude to his family name, della Rovere (rovere is Italian for oak). The portrait was displayed on 12 December 1513, after Julius’s death, in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo. It was enormously influential and became the model for ecclesiastical portraiture over the following 200 years.
This portrait of Pope Julius II (1443–1513) is usually dated to the one-and-a-half-year period during which he wore a beard. He grew it as a token of mortification between October and December 1510 while recovering from a serious illness brought on by the loss of Bologna to French troops, and vowed to remain unshaven until the French were chased out of Italy. He removed his beard only when events took a turn for the better in March 1512.
It is likely that the portrait was painted very shortly after the Pope returned from his military campaign in Emilia-Romagna on 27 June 1511. His careworn expression may be explained by his continuing precarious state of health. In August 1511 he was struck by a second near-fatal illness, during which he received his Last Rites.
The two golden acorns on the chair allude to his family name, della Rovere (rovere is Italian for oak). The reflections in their gleaming surface reveal that Julius was seated opposite a doorway in a narrow room lit by a mullioned window. Raphael may have painted the portrait in Julius’s apartment on the third floor of the Vatican palace – perhaps the room where he received visitors, which was lit by similar windows. The portrait was displayed on 12 December 1513, after Julius’s death, in the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which had been redecorated at the expense of the della Rovere family.
Before Raphael covered it with the plain green colour visible today, the background was decorated with heraldic symbols representing the papal tiara, papal crossed keys and another symbol which was probably the yellow oak tree of the della Rovere coat of arms. The design would have looked very busy, with the yellow, blue and white pattern distracting from the extraordinary portrayal of the aged Pope deep in thought. Raphael’s decision to replace it with a green background may have been prompted by Justus of Ghent’s portrait of Julius’s uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, which shows a pope with a green damask curtain behind him. Raphael would have known the portrait from the ducal palace in his hometown of Urbino, where his father had been court painter. The colours red, white and green – repeated in the stones on the sitter’s finger rings – are also those of the three theological virtues: charity, faith and hope.
Raphael’s portrait was enormously influential and became the model for ecclesiastical portraiture over the following 200 years. Sebastiano, Titian, El Greco, Velázquez, Domenichino, Reni and Guercino are among the many artists who adopted this formula. The three-quarter length format brings the viewer very close to the elderly, war-like Pope, who, when asked if he wanted to be shown with a book in his hand in a sculpture by Michelangelo, replied: ‘Give me a sword; I am not a man of letters.’ Raphael’s portrait, however, is not the portrait of a warmonger but an astonishingly intimate image of a careworn elderly man. Pope Julius was a great patron of the arts, commissioning Raphael to decorate the papal apartments (Vatican Stanze) and ordering the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome.
The National Gallery’s painting is very close to the portrait in Raphael’s fresco of Julius as Gregory IX approving the Decretals for the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican, which was completed by August 1511. The heads in the easel portrait and the fresco match each other line for line – it seems likely that Raphael made the easel portrait first, studying his model from life.
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