The Renaissance: Raphael and Galatea


The Nymph Galatea (c. 1512-14), Raphael

Although my preferences in art tend toward flat and highly stylized, I cannot deny how exciting and important the Renaissance was to the arts, humanities and sciences. One piece of Renaissance work that I always come back to is The Nymph Galatea by Raphael. The complexity of the composition without being cluttered, the lines of inferred movement and the contrasting colors are design elements I am drawn to, but I am also drawn to the importance of the subject matter and where the painting is physically located.

The Nymph Galatea is a fresco painting in the villa (now called Farnesina) of a wealthy banker in Rome named Agostino Chigi. As the Renaissance came into bloom, the merchant class came into power (such as the Medici family in Florence). Grand frescoes that had typically been more reserved for the church were commissioned by wealthy merchants and bankers, making art accessible to more than just the church.

The subject matter of Raphael’s fresco falls within the humanist ideas of the age: classical stories and characters and interest in the human form. Galatea is a nymph in Greek mythology who is the subject of many stories, typically centering around being the consort of the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, son of Poseidon. Polyphemus sang love songs to Galatea as she fled across the sea from him on her chariot pulled by two dolphins. Raphael’s prior interest in classical themes can also be seen in the fresco The School of Athens, completed in 1511.

What I found most interesting about the subjects in The Nymph Galatea is that while great care was taken representation of the human form, they were highly and deliberately idealized. Raphael was questioned by a courtier about who Galatea was modeled after, and he replied that he didn’t follow a singular model, but rather a certain idea that he had formed in his mind (Gombrich and Gombrich 1995).

Technically speaking, this particular fresco employs mastery of many innovations and practices of the Italian Renaissance. The fresco technique of painting pigment into wet plaster had been used since classical antiquity, but the artist of the Renaissance pushed it to greater heights with their enormous works. The soft treatment of the blue background lends itself to a gentle atmospheric perspective, which gives the painting just enough depth to make the chairoscuro rendering of the foreground figures even more dramatic. Galatea’s red drapery being caught in the wind and the only use of deep red used in the composition brings contrast against the different hues of blue, as well as brings the focus to Galatea herself in the center.

Despite the dramatic lighting of the foreground figures, color contrast of Galatea and the commotion of the scene (tritons abducting nymphs around Galatea and cherubs pointing their love arrows at her), everything is serene in an almost unsettling way. Between the balance of the figure-eight composition, they seem entranced and ignorant of the fact that they are being kidnapped by servants of a giant.

I think that’s what draws me to this image in particular out of many other Italian Renaissance paintings. The Renaissance masters painted stories of antiquity that were downright horrifying; abduction, entrancement and murder (just to name a few), but they did it with harmonious compositions and serene subjects that were absolutely beautiful.

Works Cited
Raphael: The nymph Galatea (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 21 January 2017).
WebCite query result (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 21 January 2017).
Gombrich, E.H. and Gombrich, L. (1995) The story of art. 16th edn. London: Phaidon Press.

2 thoughts on “The Renaissance: Raphael and Galatea

  1. What a great analysis! I actually opened your blog in another window and read your description while looking back and forth at the painting. Doing this really opened my eyes to each and every little detail that you explained. I agree that many of the Renaissance paintings were more of a “dark” feeling but you are right this one has a sense of peace with it.
    I also really enjoy the different expressions of each of the characters in this painting. They all have different expressions that I feel tells how they are feeling at that moment. An example is the Angel in the cloud, he looks unhappy. As if the others were leaving him out and he is plotting his revenage.

    Thank you for giving such great deatil!!


  2. I really enjoy Greek and Roman mythology and in this fresco by Raphael I can see the influence. The cherubs, the centaur, the Tritons, and well obviously the whole backstory is taken from Greek mythology but it shows me the revival of Greek and Roman influence that the Renaissance and Humanism were about. This painting to me feels like chaos and struggle. The value of the painting to me is a little dark, while there is lots of color use (and this may be due to aging) it’s overall not bright. There’s not a lot of negative space in this picture, there’s lot for my eyes to look at, and I really enjoy the story that you shared with it. I like that there’s so much movement in the figures, and that every figure has a corresponding movement in another figure. Raphael was an important painter and many of his works are considered to be influenced by Humanism, such as The School of Athens, and I think this is no exception. The connection from this piece to Greek and Roman mythology and literature are exactly what influence they had on Humanist work.


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