(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

St Catherine of Alexandria

Oil on wood, 71,1 x 54,6 cm
National Gallery, London

Half-way between a work of private devotion and a collector's piece, this picture was probably painted just before Raphael's move to Rome. Rather more evident than the influence of Perugino is that of Leonardo, who perfected the `serpentine' pose in which the body twists about its axis, lending movement, grace and three-dimensional presence even to static figures. Characteristically, Raphael justifies this unnatural position through a narrative device: Catherine turns her head upwards and to her right in ecstatic communion with the divine light descending in thin gold rays from the sky.

St Catherine of Alexandria is portrayed in a marvellous, twisted pose. Her left arm is leaning on her attribute, the wheel, and her right hand is pressed to her breast while she gazes up at a sky flooded with light. The composition is as rich in harmonious movement as the coloration is full and varied.

The landscape is painted with particular care. Its light shading indicates a residual influence of Leonardo, although the jagged mountains which often characterize Leonardo's landscapes are absent. The delicate modelling of the saint, the slight torsion of her body as she leans on the wheel of her martyrdom (whose spikes have been reduced to rounded knobs in order to tone down the element of cruelty) fully express the balanced character of Raphael's art. The panel clearly shows the intense formal research which underlies Raphael's figurative creations. He is always careful not to excite emotions which he considers too intense and to mitigate tones and thematic elements in search of a perfect balance between design, colour, pose and expression, and between the figurative and ornamental elements.