There is a saying that “Art follows Money”. By that, one means that the very rich can afford to buy the very best paintings and whereas once the major works of art headed to the USA they are now more likely to end up in the Middle East or Asia, which are now areas of wealth. In earlier times, the wealthy classes would become benefactors to the great artists. The rich bankers and merchants could order paintings of subjects of their choice. The church and the papacy had the wealth and power and much of the art was for them or commissioned by them and the subject of the art was of their choice. During those days religious paintings were to the fore as there were so many rich and powerful religious benefactors.
My Daily Art Display today is Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals. The artist was Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, better known simply as Raphael, and the painting can be found in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The painting, completed around 1518, was believed to have been commissioned by Raphael’s great patron, Pope Leo X himself. A great deal has been written about the symbolic meaning of this painting and many art historians have written profusely regarding how one should interpret the picture, often disagreeing with each other so let me just outline the fundamentals of this exquisite work of art.
In the picture seated at the table is Giovanni de’ Medici who was elected pope in 1513 and took the name Leo X. The man standing behind the pope with his hand resting on the pope’s chair is the cardinal Luigi de’ Rossi. He was Leo’s first cousin, slightly older, and a particular favourite of the pontiff. The cardinal to the left of the picture is Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, and was Leo’s right hand man in the papal court.
The reason for Raphael painting this picture is rife with conjecture and I will choose the most popular theory which is that it was a wedding present. Theory has it that Leo X commissioned the painting so that his effigy would be present at the banquet celebrating the wedding in Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne an event which he could not personally attend. According to Lorenzo’s mother Alfonsina her son placed the portrait above the middle of the banquet table next to where the bride sat thus allowing her papal uncle and cardinal cousins to be symbolically present at the occasion.
Raphael has depicted Pope Leo X with a degree of realism, rather than idealism, showing him as being rather overweight and with a dour expression. This look of solemnity may be due to the troubled times of his papacy with Martin Luther’s challenge to its authority and his condemnation of Leo’s method of selling indulgences to fund work on the reconstruction work on St Peter’s Basilica. Leo, who was noted for his near-sightedness can be seen clutching a magnifying glass in his left hand which he may have been using to read the book on which his right hand rests. This book has been identified as his own copy of the Hamilton Bible, which his father Lorenzo the Magnificent had given him.
In the foreground on the table there is silver bell with a golden scalloped dome on the side of which is a raised design of acanthus leaves, flowers and two Medici symbols, namely the Medici insignia, a diamond ring and three feathers and to the left and only just visible, the six-palle coat of arms of Leo X surmounted by the crossed papal keys and tiara. The art critic and historian of the time Giorgio Vasari described the bell as “a little bell of wrought silver, which is more beautiful than words can tell”
All in all a magnificent painting, which has collected a myriad of different interpretations and elicited many theories regarding the symbolism of it as a whole and its many parts, should just be enjoyed and admired as a great work of art.