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Raphael: Homage or Theft?

My sister and I have recently discovered the art of debate. 

It began with a simple, teasing remark: Filippo Brunelleschi is a greater architect than Antoni Gaudí. 

My sister’s argument lingered on the fact that Gaudí’s vision was so complex that 138 years on the Sagrada Família is still being constructed. The aim, I hear, is to complete it by 2026, the centenary of the architect’s death. 

My argument? Brunelleschi completed a project that had been left unfinished 124 years earlier, with the greatest architects of the time unsure how to continue. He even invented a number of machines to aid in the construction – machinery that is still used today, and which helped the likes of Verrocchio and his apprentices (including a young Leonardo da Vinci) place the lantern on top of the Santa Maria del Fiore dome a little over 50 years later. 

My sister and I declared a stalemate and moved on, so I’ll leave the final decision to you. 

It wasn’t long, however, before we started again. This time: Raphael – homage or theft?

Presumed Portrait of Raphael
Uffizi Gallery, Florence


Alongside Michelangelo Buonarroti and Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael Santi is one of the High Renaissance Triumvirate (no need to ask why there are four Ninja Turtles but only three masters, there’s a post on that coming soon!). 

He was born in Urbino in 1483, where his father, Giovanni, was court painter. Growing up among the elite, in the ideal Renaissance court, filled with the arts – music and literature included – gave Raphael his famous manners and social skills. Unlike his artistic contemporaries, however, he didn’t receive a humanist education which was paramount in the time of the Renaissance. 

Giorgio Vasari, the founder of art history writing, splits Raphael’s life into three clear sections: 

  • his early years working as an apprentice under the Umbrian master, Pietro Perugino; 
  • his period absorbing the artistic tradition in the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence; and 
  • his dominant dozen years in Rome where Raphael worked in the Vatican.

The influence of these three periods is extremely clear in Raphael’s art. With all artists influenced by others, regardless of their medium – George R. R. Martin taking from J. R. R. Tolkien, for example – there is a notoriously fine line between paying homage to someone and plagiarising them. 

This is where our debate begins: With the amount of ‘influence’ clear in Raphael’s art, does his borrowing move from taking inspiration from to plagiarising? 

The Mond Crucifixion by Raphael
The National Gallery, London
Crucifix by Brunelleschi – Pazzi Crucifixion by Perugino – Monteripido Altarpiece by Perugino
Santa Maria Novella, Florence – Santa Maria Maddalena, Florence – Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia

The composition is clearly taken from Perugino’s Monteripido Altarpiece (Image 3). 

From Brunelleschi’s Crucifix in Santa Maria Novella (Image 1) Raphael takes the figure of Christ. Brunelleschi’s model originally also included a loincloth similar to the one that Raphael has used in his composition. 

Raphael then takes the saints from both Perugino’s Pazzi Crucifixion (Image 2) and the Monteripido Altarpiece. The copy is so obvious that Vasari wrote had he not signed the bottom of the cross, no one would have believed it was Raphael and not Perugino who painted the piece. Even the trees in the background are Peruginoesque. 

But there is a subtle complexity to the Mond Crucifixion that you don’t see in Perugino’s work. Raphael forces your gaze around the painting through gesture and gaze. Begin at Christ, in the centre, and you can follow his eyeline down to the Virgin Mary who looks out you, reminding you to contemplate this moment. Follow her hands and you’re led to St. Jerome, who gestures towards Mary Magdalene. Follow either St. Jerome’s gaze, or Mary Magdalene’s gaze or folded hands and you’re led right back up to Christ. Start at the angels and Raphael pulls your gaze back up to Christ in an instant or following the line of the angel’s foot in yellow and you’re led down to St. John the Evangelist who, again, gazes out at you as if reminding you to be contemplative. I can think of few other paintings who force your gaze back to the centre in such a way. 

It was also important for artists to be able to paint in the style of their masters. It was good for business! Domenico Ghirlandaio – teacher of Michelangelo – had one of the busiest workshops in the 1400s. Can you imagine how hard it would have been if he had no assistants able to paint in his style? 

So why do we question Raphael? 

Maybe the answer is with one of our other Ninja Turtles: Michelangelo! 


Michelangelo, notoriously cantankerous, despised Raphael. Raphael was a young upstart gaining prestige among those who considered Michelangelo a Master; and the Master was losing out on commissions because of it. 

When Sebastiano del Piombo arrived in Rome, the two bonded (likely over their dislike for Raphael, with whom Sebastiano had previously worked) and when Sebastiano and Raphael were put into direct competition, with one being commissioned to paint The Raising of Lazarus, and the other The Transfiguration, Michelangelo provided Sebastiano sketches for Lazarus to make sure he won against the Umbrian painter. Not that he did – Raphael conveniently died just after completing his artwork and while Sebastiano’s altar was sent to Narbonne Cathedral, Raphael’s remained in Rome. 

The Transfiguration by Raphael – The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano del Piombo
The Vatican Museums, Vatican City – The National Gallery, London

This rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael seems to have been born in Rome. 

Raphael moved there in 1508 and almost immediately secured a commission to paint Pope Julius II’s rooms in the Vatican. There were four rooms in total: The Room of the Signatura, the Room of Heliodorus, the Room of the Fire in the Borgo and the Hall of Constantine. 

Donato Bramante, the man who introduced Renaissance architecture to Milan and the High Renaissance style to Rome, was close to both Raphael and Pope Julius II. It was Bramante whom Julius II had engaged for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. It was Bramante who convinced him to hire Raphael to paint the Vatican Palace. It was Bramante who took Raphael to the Sistine Chapel (while Michelangelo was away) to show him the Sistine Ceiling long before it had been completed. 

You can see the evidence of this all over Raphael’s work. The most obvious, perhaps, being the fresco of Prophet Isaiah in the Basilica di Sant’Agostino which is, without a doubt, heavily influenced by Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Ceiling. 

Prophet Isaiah by Raphael – Isaiah by Michelangelo
Basilica di Sant’Agostino, Rome – The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Michelangelo was furious. After all, Raphael’s work was being completed and show to the public long before the Sistine Ceiling was finished. Would everyone think Michelangelo was copying Raphael? 

It’s true that maybe Raphael should have refused to look at the ceiling, but if you had the chance to look at your idol’s work in progress and to learn from his technique, would you really pass up the opportunity? And maybe, just maybe, Raphael was a sponge, unknowingly absorbing everything in detail and ‘accidentally’ copying almost verbatim. Or perhaps he believed he was honouring Michelangelo. Giving him credit, in a way, to Raphael’s success. 

The School of Athens by Raphael
The Vatican Apartments, Vatican City


Turn your attention to Raphael’s School of Athens. The most famous of Raphael’s frescos is teeming with homages to various artists. 

There, as Aristotle pointing up to the sky, is Leonardo da Vinci. 

See that feminine figure staring out at us in the left? That’s Francesco Maria della Rovere, the nephew of Pope Julius II who became the Duke of Urbino. 

In the bottom right, the figure of Euclid bears the resemblance of Donato Bramante.

At the edge is Raphael, himself, as the court artist of Alexander the Great, walking into the room with Il Sodoma, the artist he had taken the decoration of the Vatican Rooms from. 

And there, in the very centre, Michelangelo. 

Here, Michelangelo sits among the greatest of thinkers as Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher best known for his work on cosmology, in which he believed fire formed the basic material principle for an orderly universe (yeah, I didn’t understand a word of that either… thanks for the explanation, Encyclopaedia Britannica!). 

In my opinion, it was an honour. In my sister’s, it’s mockery. 

He sits apart from the other figures, an afterthought. On this point, she’s right. The cartoon for this particular fresco is in Milan, and Heraclitus isn’t in it. When you’re up close to it, you can also see very clearly that the plaster for Heraclitus was added after the rest of the fresco – yep, definitely a late edition.

Heraclitus also happened to be nicknamed ‘The Weeping Philosopher’ and was considered a misanthrope who suffered depression and had varicose veins. But before yet another debate begins – Raphael’s depiction of Michelangelo as Heraclitus – deep in thought or a miserable old man? An honour, or mockery? – back to the point…

Was Michelangelo’s anger towards Raphael justified? Was it plagiarism? Or was he just… jealous? 


Michelangelo had grown up among the children of Lorenzo ‘de Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. Lorenzo took the young, promising student of Ghirlandaio in, gave him a home and a humanist education alongside his own children. One of those children was Giovanni de’ Medici, who became Pope Leo X, Julius II’s successor. Despite their connection, Leo X, like Julius before him, had taken Raphael as his favourite and continuously offered him commissions instead of Michelangelo. (Do you blame him? Michelangelo was hard to work with!)

Michelangelo was also rumoured to live a life of monk-like chastity (and is now believed to have been struggling with homosexuality alongside his devout lifestyle). Raphael, on the other hand, was known to be quite the ladies’ man, whose early death (he was only 37) was rumoured to have been caused by a fever he had contracted after a night of excessive sex. 

Where Michelangelo was always alone, Raphael was always surrounded by others, the centre of attention. Where Michelangelo had struggled for months to get a commission from the papacy, Raphael had done it almost instantly. It probably didn’t help that Raphael was also asked to design the tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, which sat beneath the ceiling Michelangelo had painstakingly completed and from which various figures had been adopted by Raphael. 


When talking about the Renaissance, Isaac Newton’s words always come to mind: 

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac newton

The Renaissance was about building on what came before, perfecting ideas and moving passed them. 

We think about what Raphael borrowed from Michelangelo – about the inspiration he took from the Sistine Chapel or the fact that the figure of Christ in Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo is clearly behind Raphael’s Christ in the Bridgewater Madonna, painted a year before he moved to Rome – but what about everyone else? 

Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo – Bridgewater Madonna by Raphael
Royal Academy of Arts, London – Modern Two, Scotland

How many pieces from the Renaissance use the Laocoön or the Gaddi Torso somewhere in their composition? How many times have we seen artists quote from other artists, taking a dog from one painter’s masterpiece and inserting it into their own works?

Forget quoting artists in his work, Michelangelo had begun his career as an actual forger. He passed off his copy of Sleeping Eros to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a collector of early Roman antiquities, as the original piece. When Riario discovered this, he didn’t disavow Michelangelo, he became his first patron in Rome, and the sculpture eventually found its way to the hands of Cesare Borgia, who gifted it to Isabella d’Este. 

Where is the line? And did Raphael truly cross it?

Yeah, I don’t think so… What about you?

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