Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The Renaissance star has always been held up as a model of formal perfection but this oustanding show reveals the artist’s warmth and tenderness too
A woman is running towards us, mouth open in a scream, a baby cradled in her arms. The violence around her seems to part and give safe passage through the slaughter. What the open pathway through the heart of the horror really gives, however, is a heartbreaking visual connection between our eyes and her pain. To look into that terrified face is to feel the full pity of her plight. It is impossible not to be gripped by compassion.
There are three drawings of this harrowing New Testament scene, The Massacre of the Innocents, in the Ashmolean Museum’s outstanding exhibition of Raphael’s drawings. They were done in Rome in about 1509-10, when the artist was in his mid-20s. In each – from rough sketch to finished design – the same woman rushes through the crowd. Yet the details vary: the expression on her face, the pose of the baby. In the most poignant, the baby’s eyes are little dots and it lolls as if dead in her arms. Her eyes are hollow dark pits of despair.