The vision of Ezekiel
The High Renaissance, a movement that was based in Rome, dated between 1450 and 1527, signifies the climax of the Italian Renaissance and the culmination of the artistic developments of the Early Renaissance. It has been exemplified by a surge of human creativity and one of the greatest explosions of creative genius in the history of arts. It was a time of perfection, where art, especially paintings reached the peak of technical competence, rich artistic imagination, humanistic content and heroic composition. They were balanced in composition and demonstrated perfect harmony, comparable in excellence to the art of ancient Rome and Greece. Three grand masters, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) and Michelangelo helped in establishing this period in Italian art. It is believed to have emerged when Leonardo da Vinci completed his Last Supper in Milan and ended after the Raphael’s death in 1520.
Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) is regarded as the supreme creator of devotional art, and has been an inspiration for many brilliant successors. While he, together with Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo were together responsible for the birth of the High Renaissance period of art, his technique was quite unlike theirs in its beauty and elegance. He is revered to be one of the most graceful artists, “….in his figures, the flesh seems to quiver, their breath may be perceived, the pulse beats and the true presentment of life is seen in them”.
In The Vision of Ezekiel Raphael has portrayed a sensory experience, which was shown in his earlier paintings as being synonymous with the physical realm, incompatible with the world of sense, even imprecise in terms of magnitude and scale. The source of the subject matter is the Bible and the revered Prophet Ezekiel’s famous vision of God.
Ezakiel claimed to have envisioned God, aloft a mighty throne held by four cherubs. But instead of describing the four cherubs like the Prophet did, Raphael represents a classical mysticism with the conventional symbols of the Evangelists. A stormy, turbulent sky overlooks a tree which is centrally placed in a low, wide landscape. The divine hovers amid the clouds, surrounded by an aura of bright light. The Evangelists are represented by an angel, an ox, an eagle and a lion – the symbols of Saints Matthew, Luke, John and Mark, respectively- together with two cherubs spiral around the imposing central figure. The balance of this particular composition is impressive and draws the audience to the overpowering capacity of the Almighty and the insubstantial size of human beings in comparison, depicted by Raphael as a tiny Ezekiel in the bottom left of the background, scarcely visible, completely dwarfed by the scale of his vision.
The painting seems to boast much larger dimensions than its true size, and possesses a colossal spirit. The Creator floats in space with extended arms, held up by angels, surrounded by a brightness ” as the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain,” .The Creator’s Jove like quality gives away a classic influence which in previous work Raphael deliberately and carefully disregarded when treating Biblical types. God sits crowned upon the mystical symbols of the Evangelists, triumphant and of congruent composition. Raphael has magnified God’s image further by surrounding him in a dense abundance of clouds, darkening the background in contrast to emphasize on the Creators grandeur. He fixes the viewers focus on the prime subject of the piece – the All-Mighty Himself.
The Vision of Ezekiel is beautiful for its dexterity – fine brushwork, meticulous texture and the genius of Raphael to suggest depth by layering different colors of paint. It is in the fineness of his work that he was considered different, even superior in some circles, that the great masters Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.
It’s a rich mélange of symbolic actions. Peculiar images in strange visions and gracefully grotesque metaphors are part of it. The subject and style is quickly varying, and the historical references are unclear. These characteristics are deliberately produced by the intricate genius of Raphael to depict Ezekiel as a complicated, difficult character, perhaps the most difficult of Prophets to understand in the book of scripture. Ezekiel is thought to have been a prominent priest in Jerusalem before he was expelled with the first batch of Israelites into exile in Babylon. He settled into his house on the outskirts of Babylon, today’s Iraq. He lived during one of the most difficult times in Israel’s history.
The name “Ezekiel” means God will strengthen. For Ezekiel, God is supreme over all people and the entire universe, transcending human intellect comprehension, and loyally committed to the Israelites. Ezekiel’s spiritual relationship with God helped him to be a “focus of thinking” to guide the Israelites during their years in exile.
I believe Raphael, through his painting speaks to us about the idolatry of today and teaches us to live responsibly, and fill us with hope. It aims to remind us about the transcending vision of the Al-mighty, so we can derive comfort and solace in this age of distress. Raphael’s version of Ezekiel’s vision, although accurate in subject matter, doesn’t portray the vision entirely as described by Ezekiel. Ezekiel described four living creatures having ‘human bodies’, whereas Raphael’s version doesn’t. Also, he paints them as passive benign earthly animals – the only alteration being that his lion and ox have wings – whereas Ezekiel described the “living creatures” as massive, enraged and bounded by fire. He said they sounded like the ‘tumult of an army’ as they moved. He so feared the creatures that he fell face down on the ground.
Raphael has majestically portrayed an assortment of emotions, a spectacle of spiritual depth, a captivating vision of the Creator in His opulence – mighty yet tender. He did it all using oil on wood and doing so elegantly. He combines two distinct subjects (the vision of Ezekiel and the portrayal of the Evangelists) with antiquated witnesses in a single setting. It is amongst the most complex pieces of its time, not only for its diversity of components but also for the harmony of their combination. The complexity of the painting remains it’s most fascinating feature, which has attracted many before, and will continue to attract more to follow.
The piece is elusive and no definitive interpretation has emerged that compellingly explains its unusual features in terms of meaning. Raphael has created an extraordinary hybrid: a union between the new style of the altarpiece and the spiritual functions of traditional sacred images interconnected through a complex illustration of physical and spiritual vision
Raphael, probably, like his refined peers and predecessors, was sufficiently knowledgeable with information on theological matters as to create a masterpiece on such a complex level, supplementing what he did not know of specific portions by discussing the matter with theological advisers. Raphael had attained a level, a foundation for thinking about the spiritual in independent terms. This particular painting gives some indication of Raphael’s theological refinement. Raphael’s genius in this painting is his unique power of synthesis. He was able to merge the qualities of Leonardo and Michelangelo, creating a piece of art which was at once dramatic and lyric, rich and sculpturally solid.
Raphael applied perspective to his art – which was one of the characteristics of the High Renaissance period. He tried to construct an image more in line of what could actually be observed and the blended the realism and the surreal beautifully in his work, as evident by this masterpiece. The painting now lies in the Pitti Gallery in Florence.
This was my umpteenth museum experience, having spent a considerable part of my life finding myself drawn to the captivating beauty of each of the museums numerous masterpieces. I chose this particular piece for the depth of subject matter it portrays – for the hope it emanates. It is at the same time intriguing as well as complex; real and transcendent. It transports the viewer to another realm, that of mysticism and charm. It is a stark reminder of man’s smallness and God’s enormity. In this day and age where most of us are led so easily astray, The Vision of Ezekiel can be valuable, not only for making us appreciate the sheer beauty of its work – but also to seek out our purpose in life and learn from that of Ezekiel, who in the face of adversity never gave up.
This assignment was a great learning experience for me. It was a chance to see the harmony between theology and art and the sheer joy derived from it. From the endless research that I undertook to dig up relevant background material for this piece, I got to know Raphael fairly well and have begun to appreciate his technique and brilliance.
1. Jones, Roger, and Nicholas Penny. Raphael. New Haven and London, 1983.
2. The Cambridge Companion to Raphael, Marcia B. Hall, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 052180809X,
3. Landau, David in:David Landau & Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print, Yale, 1996, ISBN 0300068832
 Engel, Dr. Martin. The Renaissance. Pleasantville, Warren Schloat Proucti, Inc., 1960, pp. 32-33.