Raphael’s Endless Inspiration

click to zoom, large file with rich detail.

click to zoom, large file with rich detail.

Today’s Three Graces come to us from Raphael, a masterful Italian Renaissance painter.  This tiny (6.5″x6.5″ or 17x17cm) oil painting resides in the Musée Condé of Chantilly, France.  He painted this around 1503, in his late teens.  This is only a couple of decades after Botticelli’s immense Primavera was painted in Florence.

While Primavera is a dense, multi-layered allegory about divine and mortal love, Raphael chose to focus solely on the physical forms of the Graces.  He was undoubtedly inspired by classical motifs of the Graces, which were common in Italy at the time.  This is a similar Pomeian example, typical of the classic representation:


To me, Raphael’s vision of the Graces looks like an experiment, or maybe an artistic task.  Raphael’s Graces is more or less the size of a mousepad, with a strict color palette, featuring a well known theme from antiquity.  It wouldn’t surprise me if he used these parameters to hone other skills, like composition and brushwork.  The focus of the painting is on Raphael’s obsession with harmony and beauty and realism, expressed through the composition.

I think it’s also likely his Graces also represent Chastity (no necklace, kinda wearing clothes), Voluptuas, and Beauty.

Legs as Strong Stems

The three figures spring from the ground like flowers, their legs the stems, each with one foot solidly rooted on the earth and the other gently lifting.  Their bodies curve harmoniously like dancers though they stand still.  They wait, absorbed in their mysterious orbs while exhibiting a gentle awareness of one other.

Strikingly, the central figure faces away from us, arms outstretched.  Some see this as a deliberate mixing of classical (the nude Graces) and Christian iconography (the outstretched arms of the central figure, suggestive of a crucifix).  The far left and right figures flank the central figure with an almost perfect symmetry of torsos, arms, and heads.

colors sampled from Raphael's  work.

colors sampled from Raphael’s work.

In the same way, the colors used suggest a certain earthiness mixed with the divine.  These women represent the Italian Renaissance standard of beauty with auburn hair, fair skin, and soft bodies.  Every other color used in this painting complements the coloring of these Graces- the deliberate shades of red used for the necklaces and spheres, the blue sky, hidden green background and tawny foreground.

Beads Detail

It’s as if Raphael deliberately chose the colors that would complement the fair, firey complexions of the Graces.  This furthers the illusion that these women sprang from the earth itself or perhaps it’s the opposite.   They inhabit a world created for them.

Long Gaze at the Orb

The commonest interpretation of this painting explains that these are the Hespirades, nymphs who guard the Golden Apples in a garden at the edge of the world, but no one knows for sure.  Hercules and other heros quested to find the Golden Apples, which appear in any number of myths and generally impart wisdom or immortality, or are simply objects of desire.

This is perhaps another blending of Classical and Christian themes.  In the book of Genesis, Eve (the first woman) eats the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, gives it to her husband.  As a result, they are cast out of Paradise and the presence of God to toil in the world of sin we know today.  The fruit Eve ate is often represented in art by a bright, shining red apple.

But are they holding apples?  One orb shows the suggestion a stem, but otherwise Raphael left it ambiguous.  Why do they gaze so calmy, so intently into the spheres?  Do the orbs represent a reward?  Are they pretty placeholders?  Raphael lays bare his Graces, but draws a veil over the mystery of their gaze.  (Maybe they can see Mercury in their little red spheres? )

Raphael’s Graces were based on other versions of Graces.  His stands out for harmony of color and composition which inspires others through history (small sample!):

I particularly like that Vargas photo, though his Graces don’t have the same “earth and sky” quality.

Let’s play “two words” again, that was fun.   My two words for Raphael’s work is “iconic” and “pensive.”  Which two words would you use?  What do you see in Raphael’s Graces?


  1. I would say “harmony” and “intrigue.” Harmony because the Three Graces are obviously in sync with each other, and with each opposing foot raised it looks to me that they are swaying together. They are also quite comfortable with each other based on how their arms are draped on one another. I chose intrigue because the orb/apple is a puzzle. They are holding an ambiguous object that makes you think you see one thing, but closer inspection reveals it is not what you thought. It is a mystery to solve and the looks on their faces are imploring you to take a closer look.

    • Oooh those are two good words… And you’re right, I think they look like they’re swaying too.. Maybe they’re so interested in the orbs because they secretly toss them back and forth when no one’s looking, so they’ve spent the centuries juggling their orbs when we blink… :)

  2. Okay…I’ll say “soft” and “calculated.”
    “Soft” because these are not anatomical studies, and the figures are, well, not angular or muscular. The softness of the line, I suspect, corresponds to the period’s feminine ideal. “Calculated” because the composition of the bodies is highly balanced, perhaps too perfecty. But that’s just my taste, I enjoy small flaws or irregularities–they give personality to a work and reveal the mind of the artist. I tend to agree–the Raphael looks a bit like a study, perhaps for a detail in a larger piece or decorative work (reminds me of some medieval friezes I saw somewhere).
    As for Eve’s apple, I have read that the word “apple” was not meant to be one of fruits that we call that today. Rather, apple was a generic word for a roundish fruit. I tend to think that the Raphael objects are orbs rather than apples, but as to why the figures would be holding orbs, I don’t know. The Pompeiian image shows them holding something too, twigs or branches. Perhaps the original meaning is found there…

    • Very soft, definitely.

      Well, I like that the legs break up the perfect symmetry of the flanking Graces… It’s just small enough to give the figures a “real” vibe without looking too perfect…?

      Yes, I am sure there’s no way to know what the Fruit looked/tasted like, since the tree was left in paradise to be guarded by angels with flaming swords if my memory serves me.. :)

      • The Pompeiian mural intrigued me. This describes the Pompeiian images as Kharities (Charities, I assume) and says that the branches are myrtle: http://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Kharites.html According to Wikipedia, myrtle was sacred to Aphrodite (Venus) and Demeter and symbolizes love and immortality. A little different than an apple or pom, but there may be a connection.

  3. My two words are “introspective” and “grounded.” Botticelli’s Graces seemed light and springy, like they were about to fly upwards. These Graces seem more fixed and set – like they’re rooted to the ground. The earthy colors also add to that impression.

  4. I think I would go with “luminous” and “timeless.”

    There is no clearly defined light source in the painting. Instead, the Graces seem to be lit from within, both embodying their space and separate from it. Adding to this impression, I believe, is the slight darkening of the sky along the upper edge of the painting. The Graces are clearly standing on the ground, but when looking at only the upper portion of the painting, you could imagine that they were standing in front of a painted stage backdrop. The “timeless” quality seems to come out of this as well – the Graces are in and out of time. They might have just arrived at this pose, or they might have been holding the pose forever.

    Oh Raphael, you are always a good choice.

  5. I choose grounded as well,and also important, because the graces are the sole focus of the painting. Also because clearly there is some big meaning in the orbs and the way they’re looking at them.
    Interesting to me is the lack of pubic hair. Would it have been scandalous to show it?

    • Well, funny you should ask… The history of public hair is interesting, and apparently close cropping of the hair is not a modern thing… In Islam, the hair is kept cropped as a cleanliness thing. There were a lot of Muslims in southern Europe just before the time of these paintings, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the Europeans liked the Moorish custom of keeping that area trimmed. So it might just be that the Italian Renaissance Graces were just well-groomed…

      • Interesting! I’ve often wondered about the history of body hair treatment; shaving leg hair, for example. Guess I’ve never wondered enough to actually research it, though!

        • Well, I never set out to research it but it’s come up in various domestic/social histories of Renaissance Europe I’ve read.

          Ooooooh shaving leg hair is a really interesting one. It became a thing in the early 20’s, a razor company was looking for ways to market their products to women (thereby doubling their market) and hit upon shaving legs. Shaving armits had become a bit of a thing before then, whereas no one seemed to care before then. Leg-shaving is an *excellent* classic example of advertising creating a need (by shaming their customers) to increase their profits. :)

          I just read really omnivorously… ;)

  6. Pingback: Cranach and Pear Shaped Sensuality « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  7. you included, the more it strikes me how similar each of the three graces is to eachother. If they represent a standard of beauty, then they show how limited that one standard is. I don’t know the history of the three graces, so I’m not sure if they’re supposed to be sisters. But even sisters have more physical variations than these three women. They look like different versions of the same woman.

    I like the word “dancing” because there is such a strong sense of movement in the picture. Its as if the three are caught in an eternal dance, like time.

    • Oops, it looks like the fist line of my comment wasn’t included. It should be: “I’m gonna go with “same” and “dancing.” The more I look at the picture, especially in contrast to some of the fan art you included…”

Is it kind, useful or interesting? Great!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s