(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)
Sposalizio (The Engagement of Virgin Mary)1504
Oil on roundheaded panel, 170 x 117 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan
The panel (signed and dated: "RAPHAEL URBINAS MDIIII.") was commissioned by the Albizzini family for the chapel of St Joseph in the church of S. Francesco of the Minorities at Città di Castello. In 1798 the town was forced to donate the painting to General Lechi, a Napoleonic army officer, who sold it to the Milanese art dealer, Sannazzari. Sannazzari bequeathed it to the main hospital of Milan in 1804. Two years later it was acquired by the Academy of Fine Arts and was then exhibited at the Brera.
Critics believe the painting to be inspired by two compositions by Perugino: the celebrated Christ Delivering the Keys to St Peter from the fresco cycle in the Sistine Chapel and a panel containing the Marriage of the Virgin now in the Museum of Caën.
By painting his name and the date, 1504, in the frieze of the temple in the distance, Raphael abandoned anonymity and confidently announced himself as the creator of the work. The main figures stand in the foreground: Joseph is solemnly placing the ring on the Virgin's finger, and holding the flowering staff, the symbol that he is the chosen one, in his left hand. His wooden staff has blossomed, while those of the other suitors have remained dry. Two of the suitors, disappointed, are breaking their staffs.
The polygonal temple in the style of Bramante establishes and dominates the structure of this composition, determining the arrangement of the foreground group and of the other figures. In keeping with the perspective recession shown in the pavement and in the angles of the portico, the figures diminish proportionately in size. The temple in fact is the centre of a radial system composed of the steps, portico, buttresses and drum, and extended by the pavement. In the doorway looking through the building and the arcade framing the sky on either side, there is the suggestion that the radiating system continues on the other side, away from the spectator.
Caught at the culminating moment of the ceremony, the group attending the wedding also repeats the circular rhythm of the composition. The three principal figures and two members of the party are set in the foreground, while the others are arranged in depth, moving progressively farther away from the central axis. This axis, marked by the ring Joseph is about to put on the Virgin's finger, divides the paved surface and the temple into two symmetrical parts.
A tawny gold tonality prevails in the colour scheme, with passages of pale ivory, yellow, blue-green, dark brown and bright red. The shining forms appear to be immersed in a crystalline atmosphere, whose essence is the light blue sky.
The structure of Raphael's painting, which includes figures in the foreground and a centralized building in the background, can certainly be compared to the two Perugino paintings. But Raphael's painting features a well developed circular composition, while that of Perugino is developed horizontally, in a way still characteristic of the Quattrocento. The structure of the figure group and of the large polygonal building clearly distinguish Raphael's painting from that of his master. The space is more open in Raphael's composition, indicating a command of perspective which is superior to Perugino's.