Tim Hughes is given a preview of the Ashmolean’s unique summer show of Raphael drawings

Expressive and sensuous one moment and aggressively muscular the next, Raphael’s work offers a glimpse of the divine – the highpoint of human artistic endeavour and the apotheosis of Renaissance art.

This most celebrated of artists had a brief but brilliant career, dying aged just 37, yet is responsible for some of the most enduring masterpieces of his age – huge frescoes and altarpieces, many adorning the Vatican Palace – and is acknowledged as one of the three great masters of the high Renaissance alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

As striking as his great paintings, frescos and tapestries are, however, it is in his drawings that the soul of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino emerges – flashes of genius in a pen stroke; virtuosity in a line of red chalk. It is in the detail, impossible to render in paint, that the flair and ingenuity of Raphael shines through in all its delicate, understated glory.

Incredibly, many of these works reside in the permanent collection of the University of Oxford – though, because of their delicate nature and vulnerability to exposure, they remain under lock and key in the prints and drawings room of the university’s Ashmolean Museum.

In what is acknowledged to be a once in a lifetime achievement, however, these visions of godly perfection, and others from Europe’s greatest galleries, have been brought together for the biggest of Raphael’s work for a generation – if not ever.

Raphael: The Drawings is the Ashmolean’s big summer exhibition and among the most important in its history, particularly given the museum’s role as the greatest repository of Raphael’s drawings in the world.

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The driving force behind this extraordinary show is curator Catherine Whistler, for whom it represents the fruition of four years of work.

She described the exhibition, which is broadly chronological, as a way of observing the evolution of Raphael’s style. “What we are doing is showing Raphael, through his drawings, moving through his career from an ambitious and tentative artist inspired by Leonardo, to his final work in which he pushes that tradition forward.

“Drawing is the the engine that drives Raphael’s expressiveness and these drawings are like stepping stones through his life.

“We are shifting the ground and starting with a sheet of paper and what’s going on there, and using it as a way of thinking and observation. We can see him testing ideas and design solutions.”

To illustrate her point, she compares the ‘tentative’ self-portrait at the very start of the exhibition and compares it to the final picture – his famous studies of the heads and hands of two apostles – a drawing described as the most beautiful in the world, showing the artist at the very top of his game and master of his craft. The black chalk study, she says, exemplifies the mute eloquence that Renaissance artists aspired to achieve in competition with poets and orators.

It’s a stunning piece of work, refined and precise yet fluid, each line and stroke lending expression to the two faces – one fresh faced in youth, the other etched with the lines of age and wisdom, but both filled with the same inner glow of adoration. It is a study not only of anatomy but of love, faith and devotion.

“Drawing is so immediate,” says Catherine. “You can see how it takes form and we are trying to convey that sense of intimacy. It’s as if we are looking over his shoulder as he creates these drawings.”

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Of the 120 pieces in the exhibition, about 50 are in the museum’s permanent collection. The others are drawn from Europe’s greatest museums – the British Museum, the Uffizi in Florence, the Albertina in Vienna, the Louvre, the Palais des Beaux Arts in Lille, Frankfurt’s Städel Museum and from the Royal Collection.

Pictures are grouped in three galleries, which show how his technique evolved, as he moved from his hometown of Urbino to Florence, where he became exposed to Renaissance art and architecture, and on to Rome, where he was commissioned to paint his frescos for the Vatican. It follows three broad themes: inventiveness, orchestration, and expression.

“It is a big exhibition which covers his whole career,” says Catherine. “It’s incredible that he produced these in such a short time. He was only 37 when he died. Leonardo, in contrast, was 67 and Michaelangelo 88.

“What would he have gone on to do had he lived, is the question.”

She goes on: “We are looking at how Raphael invented himself as an artist. We can see him testing himself against others – such as Leonardo – but also learning. He’s trying to get into Leonardo’s head and hand.”

Two recurring themes are that of the protective mother (principally the Virgin) and child and that of the aggressive or heroic male. These are combined to dramatic effect in his studies for the Massacre of the Innocents (1509-10). The drawings show him toying with design elements and motifs which lead to a perfectly balanced picture. There is horror and emotion too – kneeling women, arms outstretched, shielding babies from brutish, muscular soldiers wielding swords. It’s a hair raising scene.

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Catherine says: “By the time Raphael goes to Florence he is trying to understand the male body as expressive and heroic, and its use in art, as well as the mother and child, which recurs throughout his life.

“These drawings give you an insight into how his mind is working. There’s a drama you don’t get to see very often. He is using drawings to reflect on character like a great filmmaker or theatrical producer.”

Catherine has a missionary’s zeal and passion for her subject. “I have been working on this for four years,” she says. “It’s the kind of big exhibition that happens just once in a lifetime. It’s not going to happen again.

"I want people who may not have seen Raphael before to see his creativity from beginning to end.”

  • Raphael: The Drawings is at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford until September 3. Tickets are £12 and free to children under 12. Go to ashmolean.org