One of Raphael’s famous frescoes in the Vatican Museums portrays the epic showdown between Attila the Hun and Leo the Great.
Figuratively speaking, however, this painting could also well describe the herculean efforts of the Vatican restorers, who, after more than two decades of work, have just successfully completed the restoration of the Room of Heliodorus.
Grime, soot, age and structural damage were threatening these masterpieces of Raphael Sanzio, but the inspiration of a great pope, the funding of a visionary patron and the skill of expert craftspeople rescued these images from the darkness that seemed to have claimed them.
When Blessed John Paul II announced his ambitious plan in 1980 to restore color to the Sistine Chapel and thus harness the persuasive power of its splendor for the New Evangelization, artists and philanthropists rallied to his cause. After the completion of the Sistine Chapel’s cleaning in 1999, the works of Raphael — Michelangelo’s contemporary and rival and the artistic heir of Leonardo da Vinci — were ready for renewal.
Financing this massive undertaking was an exceptional patron of the arts, Florence D’Urso, charter member of the New York chapter of the Patrons of the Vatican Museums. Alongside her many gifts to the Church, she funded the cleaning of the Stanza della Segnatura, the papal throne room of Pope Julius II, who hired Raphael to decorate his apartments in 1509. D’Urso chose to underwrite this room in honor of Pope John Paul II, who embodied the subjects depicted in the room. Theologian, crusader for justice, philosopher and poet — the room seems tailor-made for the Polish Pontiff.
D’Urso then financed the cleaning of the Room of Heliodorus, painted for Julius from 1511-1514 and named for one of the narrative scenes covering the walls. D’Urso died in April 2012, and, like Pope Julius II himself, did not live to see the full fruits of her generosity.
"Her legacy however," noted Father Mark Haydu, the international director of Patrons of the Vatican Museums, "will live on in the great body of art that she brought back to life and that will continue to proclaim truth through beauty for generations to come."
Raphael was present for the unveiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling in 1512, and the impact it made on the young painter charges every wall of this room.
The restoration, led by master Vatican restorers Paolo Violini and Maria Ludmila Putska, has revealed a daring color palette and meticulous attention to anatomical detail derived from Michelangelo’s innovations.
While Putska acknowledges that these works have undergone many restorations, starting in 1528, after the paintings had been damaged during the Sack of Rome, this restoration uses the skills and techniques honed by the Sistine Chapel project.
The revelations regarding Raphael’s artistic genius have been astounding as well. Amid prosaic details such as the discovery of a centuries-old bean from the painter’s lunch to a clumsy splash of red on an angel’s nose, Raphael’s fearless willingness to engage with other techniques and styles is breathtaking.
In the Miracle of Bolsena, the young painter shows a new fascination with the rich tonalities of Venetian painting, while the Expulsion of Heliodorus showcases Raphael’s grappling with the sculptural compositions of Michelangelo.
"Leonardo promises us paradise, and Raphael delivers it to us," said Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums.
Indeed, Raphael reveals the Divine in this room.
Removal of dirt on the Liberation of St. Peter has uncovered exceptional virtuosity in subtle gradations of light and shade, as Raphael juxtaposed natural light with heavenly aura.
Putska noted that the artist used "a marvelous play of gray, laced with rose and azure, with traces of violet," referring to the fresco as his "most-inspired work."
The legacy of this fresco was taken up by Caravaggio 80 years later, as the Milanese artist developed his dramatic use of light in The Calling of St. Matthew.
The last painting, both in order of execution and restoration, was the Meeting of Leo the Great With Attila.
As the only work to be painted in a landscape setting, Raphael had to group about 45 figures along a broad horizon. As Raphael began this commission, Pope Julius died, and Leo X Medici, his successor, took the reins of the project.
An early drawing shows that Raphael had planned to place the papal entourage in the distance and focus on Attila’s encounter with Sts. Peter and Paul, but the finished work, completed mostly by assistants, contains six foreground portraits of Pope Leo and his court, which impose a certain stiffness on the otherwise free-flowing composition.
Putska recognized Raphael’s own hand in the portrait of Pope Leo and his companions, as if to "avoid an imbalance in the composition caused by the excessive diversity in execution" in the exceptionally dynamic pair of horsemen on the right side of the painting.
This famous fifth-century encounter — when Pope Leo I turned back the Hun invasion — took place in the northern Italian city of Mantua, but Raphael’s background, with the ruins of the Colosseum and a fragmented aqueduct, brings the threat of war to the Pope’s doorstep. Smoke and fire encroach upon the city, but Rome’s patron saints bring light and peace.
The Room of Heliodorus served as an antechamber before entering the papal throne room. Its images were meant to remind visitors of the threats the Church has overcome through the centuries, thanks to the intervention of divine Providence.
It seems particularly fitting that D’Urso — who received the prestigious Michelangelo Award from the Vatican Museums the year before her death — chose to restore this room at this moment, when the Church is again facing great threats to her faith, property and freedom.
Raphael’s frescoes may be 500 years old, but they tell a story that is just as vivid today.
Paolucci, commenting on the restoration, shared the fresco’s most powerful message: "The faith in the death and resurrection of Our Lord is the rock upon which this Church is built. … God will never abandon it."
Art historian Elizabeth Lev
is based in Rome.