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Heliodorus chased from the Temple

Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael (1483-1520). Palazzo del Vaticano, Stanza di Raffaello – Rome. 1512.

While Apollonius, son of Thraseos, was commander-in-chief of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, Onias was high priest in Jerusalem. A certain Simon of the tribe of Bilgah came to be appointed administrator of the Temple. He came into conflict with Onias over the regulation of the city markets. He did however not get the better of Onias, so to revenge himself he went to Apollonius and told him that the treasury in Jerusalem groaned with untold wealths. Apollonius met the king and told him about the treasures that had been disclosed to him, whereupon the king selected Heliodorus, his chancellor, to go and remove the reported wealth.

When Heliodorus arrived in Jerusalem, Onias told him that some money had been set aside for widows and orphans and that some funds in the Temple belonged to Hyrcanes, a man of exalted position, but that the whole sum amounted merely to four hundred talents of silver. Onias also said that no injustice should be done to those who had put their trust in the sanctity of the Temple. But Heliodorus insisted that the funds be confiscated for the royal exchequer. The whole of Jerusalem mourned but Heliodorus set about his appointed task.

Heliodorus arrived at the Treasury with his bodyguard. But then, before their eyes appeared a horse, richly caparisoned and carrying a fearsome rider accoutred entirely in gold. The horse struck at Heliodorus, rearing with its forefeet. Two other young men of radiant beauty appeared at the horse rider’s side and they started to flog Heliodorus unremittingly, inflicting stroke after stroke. Heliodorus fell to the ground, enveloped in thick darkness. Such was the power of the God of the Israelites. Heliodorus’ men came to his rescue and they brought him away in a litter. They acknowledged the sovereign power of God.

The companions of Heliodorus asked Onias to entreat God to give life to Heliodorus, who lay at the very point of death. Onias was afraid of the king’s anger so he indeed offered sacrifices for Heliodorus’ recovery. The same young men then appeared again to Heliodorus. They told him to proclaim the grandeur of God’s power and to thank the high priest Onias. Heliodorus recovered soon. He gave thanks to the God of Israel. He took a courteous leave of Onias and marched his forces back to the king, testifying to everyone of the supreme God he had seen with his own eyes. Thus the Treasury of Jerusalem was preserved.

Raphael left Florence in 1508 for Rome. He was to work on frescoes in the new apartments of the Vatican palace for Pope Julius II Della Rovere. Raphael had to work on four rooms of the top floor, three smaller rooms and one larger one. The decorations are now called the ‘Raphael Stanzas’. They are called the Stanza of the Signatura, of the Borgo Fire, of Emperor Constantine and of Heliodorus. The frescoes are major masterpieces of Rome. The paintings for the rooms were designed around religious themes.

The Stanza of the Signatura holds as major paintings the ‘Dispute of the Blessed Sacrament’ and the ‘School of Athens’. These two frescoes handled the themes of religious truth and philosophic or natural truth. Two other, smaller frescoes, represented ‘Mount Parnassus’ and the ‘Theological and cardinal Virtues’, symbols of poetry or beauty and subjective good. Further frescoes were ‘Saint Raymond of Penafort presenting the Decretals to pope Gregory IX’ and ‘Emperor Justinian handing the Pandects to Trebonianus’, representing ecclesiastical law or justice and civil lawgiving. The Stanza of the Signatura frescoes were painted from 1508 to 1511 and if Raphael let in later works much painting to his assistants, these frescoes are truly his own. In this room of the Signatura were held the most important working documents of the Pope, hence its name. On the ceiling, there are medallions not painted by Raphael and these include allegories of philosophy, theology, justice and poetry as well as four rectangular scenes with ‘Adam and Eve’, ‘The Judgement of Solomon’, ‘Apollo and Marcyas’ and an allegory on astronomy. On might state that the overall subject of the room was that of wisdom and justice. Here the Pope worked most and among the documents might be his most important decisive and most secret ones.

The stanza of the Borgo Fire contains frescoes suggested by Leo X. These stanzas were painted from 1514 to 1517 and from 1514 on Raphael took over from Bramante the task of chief architect of Saint Peter’s, so he let his two main assistants Giulio Romana and Gianfrancesco Penni paint the frescoes along his designs. The main fresco in this hall is of the ‘Borgo Fire’, a fire that occurred near the Vatican in 847 and that was extinguished by the blessings of Pope Leo IV. A second painting is the ‘Battle of Ostia’. Other frescoes are the ‘Coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III’ and the ‘Oath of Leo III’. The ceiling holds a fresco made from 1507 to 150! By Pietro Perugino, who had been Raphael’s teacher and master, so Raphael left them untouched. Perugino had painted on the ceiling ‘God the Creator’, ‘Christ between the Baptist and Satan’, the ‘Holy Trinity and the Apostles’ and also a ‘Christ in glory’.

The Stanza of Constantine dates from later still, from 1517 to 1524. Raphael died in 1520, so that he only designed the frescoes but could not finish them nor supervise their making. They were mostly done and finished by his assistants and pupils. The ‘Battle of Emperor Constantine at the Milvian Bridge’ was painted by Giulio Romano, and Romano also made the ‘Vision of the Cross’, as well as the ‘Donation of Rome’. This last picture was probably made in collaboration with Raffaellino del Colle. The fourth fresco is the ‘Baptism of Constantine’, probably painted by Gianfrancesco Penni. The ceiling in this room was painted by Tommaso Siciliano, a pupil of Sebastiano del Piombo, and this painting was commissioned by the Popes Gregory XIII and Sixtus V.

The Stanza of Heliodorus was painted between 1511 and 1514. The frescoes in this room had to represent the protection of the Catholic Church by God. The scenes are ‘Heliodorus pursued and felled in the Temple’, ‘The Mass of Bolsena’, ‘The Meeting of Pope Leo I the Good and Atilla’ and the ‘Liberation of Saint Peter’. The ‘Mass at Bolsena’ presents the miracle that occurred to a Bohemian priest who doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and saw all too real blood issuing from the Host during his mass at Bolsena. The ‘Meeting of Leo I and Atilla’ illustrated the moment when Saint Peter and Saint Paul appear to Atilla the Hun to help and comfort Pope Leo in his confrontation with Atilla. After this encounter, Atilla mysteriously left Italy and even Europe, to return to his Asian steppes. In the ‘Liberation of Saint Peter’, an angel frees Peter from his Roman prison. All these paintings allude to divine intervention to protect the Popes or the Church. In the room of Heliodorus also the paintings of the ceiling date from before Raphael’s times. The scenes here are the ‘Burning Bush’, ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, ‘God appears to Noah’ and the ‘Sacrifice of Abraham’. They may have been painted by Guillaume de Marcillat.

‘Heliodorus pursued and felled in the Temple’ shows the moment when the divine, fearsome rider of God enters the Temple of Jerusalem to punish Heliodorus. Raphael read the Bible story well, for he painted the exact moment that the horse of the rider, rearing violently, strikes at Heliodorus with its forefeet. The Bible tells how then two other young men of radiant beauty, magnificently apparelled, appeared at the same time and flogged Heliodorus. These angels are also arriving to the scene of the fresco. Raphael painted the horse-rider in golden armour, like told in the Bible. Heliodorus was the chancellor of the king, so he too is dressed in fine armour but now he has fallen to the floor of the Temple and his bodyguards are in disarray. Raphael painted this scene on the right of the fresco.

In the centre, Raphael represented the pious high priest Onias praying silently to god before his altar. The symbols of Jewish faith are the seven-branched candelabra and the scroll of the Torah on the altar, but Onias kneels and prays as if he were a priest celebrating a Catholic Mass.

To the left of the fresco appear the faithful to help in the punishment of Heliodorus. Here we see Pope Julius II being brought forward. The chair-bearers are Mercantonio Raimundi, an engraver, and Giulio Romano, who were pupils, friends and assistants of Raphael. At the Pope’s side stands the prelate Giovanni Pietro dei Foliarii. But Foliari’s face has much resemblance to portraits of Raphael himself.

The meaning and aim of the fresco are obvious. Heliodorus was a thief, albeit a highly-placed one, a chancellor and a dignitary of the lay king. Heliodorus attacked the church, represented by the piety and innocence of Onias. God punished the intruder, however important a man this was. Pope Julius II advances to help with the apprehension of the attackers of the goods of the Temple and Church. Julius is the defender of the Catholic Church.

Raphael painted in finely contrasting clear hues in his fresco. He also looked much not only at harmonising the hues but also at the symmetry of the coloured areas. He combined complementary colours on right and left. He sued blue and yellow on the robe and cloak of the lady on the left and also blue and yellow on the angel of the right. In several other figures he combined red and green, on both sides. He brought golden and bluish-green together and red and white. He only juxtaposed blue and green on Onias, but he separated well the colours then by a golden belt and he may have put these ill-matched hues on the Jew to indicate exactly that Onias was a Jew and not a Catholic, and in order to diminish the figure of Onias. The hue that grasps the attention of the viewer on the right is the white area of the horse. Where does one find a prominent white area on the left? Of course on Pope Julius II being carried in the temple! It is almost as if Raphael adapted the colour of the horse to the robe of the Pope to be able to concentrate attention on Julius II.

Raphael let the light come from the top of the cupola of the temple. The light brightens up the golden ceiling of the Temple and Raphael painted here wonderful effects of gradual chiaroscuro. The light then pervades the Temple and we see shadows thrown to the left on the figures of the left side, to the right on the figures of the right scene. The heavens thus shine on the altar and it is towards the heavenly light that Onias directs his eyes and holds his folded hands in prayer. The light indicates the moment of the miracle, when god punishes Heliodorus. Raphael then used the bright light to bring clear, lively and strong hues in his fresco, and these hues are enlivening in the rather sombre room. He applied lighter hues also in the front and more heavy tones in the far, around Onias. Raphael was a master of volume and we see the fine chiaroscuro on the horse and on the lady in front of Pope Julius, as examples of how Raphael modulated the colours in tone and intensity to create illusion of volume of the figures and horse. All these colours are brought to enhance the grace of the figures.

Raphael’s composition is in three scenes: Heliodorus and the divine rider on the left, piety of Onias in the far centre, and Pope Julius II coming to the rescue on the right. To left and right the structure is in a pyramid form. A pyramid is around the golden rider (with at the top the golden helmet of the angel) and a pyramid is also around Julius II (with at the top the head of the Pope). The eyes of the bodyguard of Heliodorus and of Heliodorus himself go naturally upwards, towards the rider and to the centre of the ceiling. Pope Julius II also looks upwards, but Raphael had to draw something there for Julius to be able to look upwards. So he painted two zealous men that climb to a column higher up. They may climb there by fright and Julius may look at them in anger, disagreeing with such behaviour. Or Julius may look in the direction of Onias. But as Julius Looks up, the viewer’s eyes go also to the men on the columns and since there also one man in red colours is climbing upwards on the column, clinging to the one that is already higher up, there is a fine and subtle upwards direction from Julius towards the cupola of the Temple. So on both sides Raphael create a direction that elevates, that goes upwards, a direction sought eagerly by the painters that desired or tied to bring in their pictures a strong upwards spiritual élan.

Further symbols and details of interest that an observant viewer may discover are in the painting. The centre Roman arches of the Temple are covered with gold. They represent the heavenly realm. It may be strange to find Jewish symbols like the Rabbi Onias and the Jewish candelabra in the picture, but the holy Book of the Catholics sill is also the Old Testament. In various ways however Raphael diminished Onias, even though he situated the man in the centre of his picture. For one, he placed Onias far away from the viewer so that the viewer anyhow concentrates his or her attention first on Heliodorus and on Pope Julius II. Behind Onias, behind his back, Jews are praying and talking. Raphael painted the Jews however a rather ugly and small men, squat and hidden in large cloaks. He painted Onias and especially these Jews in the dark of the farthest recesses of the Temple. Two men are standing a little more in front, chatting, next to a rectangular column. They look like conspirators, spies, like slanderers and Julius may also look in their direction as if he will not tolerate such politics in his Church and no Jewish intrigues. The men form a strange contrast with the women around Pope Julius II. These women have fine clothes in light colours and they have fine, dignified faces, which also contrast with the way Raphael painted the Jews.

Christianism is based on Jewish traditions and also in other places of the Vatican, notably in the Sistine Chapel, one finds many references to the Old Testament. Raphael opened the temple rear, behind Onias, and showed a landscape and a piece of the sky there, so a piece of the natural order created by God. Pope Julius II is brought in on his chair. Around him are women and children, pointing to the Heliodorus scene. The pointing establishes the Heliodorus scene as the main one. But Pope Julius II is thus represented as the defender of the poor and weak and the helpless. He comes in to respond to the crying of the women and to their pointing. He hurries to the rescue. Julius II however does not simply stride in. he sits on his pontifical chair, the chair of peter. H sits on a throne and he enters like a monarch. Yet, he is the wise man with the white beard and a determined face of a judge that has come to solve the situation by his authority. The authority is all he needs: he can come without arms bearers. He is the representative of the divine powers that are at work on Heliodorus, on the other side. The chair-bearers of Julius are dignified and also dressed in the court robes of the Vatican. The two bearers look at the viewer, which is often a sign in Renaissance paintings that these figures have something to say to the viewer or that they are portraits of the makers of the fresco. Here, Raphael’s assistants may have been at work and added their own portraits, maybe as well as a portrait of their master, to be eternalised in the Vatican.

In the Heliodorus scene, the men that punish the chancellor are fine-looking youth. Raphael painted the horse-rider with a flowing purple cloak. This flow gives an impression as of being wings to the viewer, and it suggests that the rider is an angel of God. Raphael brought also these flowing cloaks or tunics on the two young men that come in to flog Heliodorus and they literally fly in the church so that Raphael shows them like angels too. The horse-rider wears a golden armour and also the purple mantle of Roman Emperors, so that he could be taken for an incarnation of Constantine. Raphael emphasised Roma antiquity also in other details, such as in the heavy Roman architecture of the Temple, which continues the form of the Roman arch of the room within which the fresco was made. Heliodorus has fallen to the ground, but he also is clad in fine Roman armour and Raphael added of course the detail of a vase of gold spilling its golden coins to the ground, so that the viewer would well understand what Heliodorus had come to do in Jerusalem. He then also showed Heliodorus’ servants going out, wearing the heavy boxes of the Jewish treasure.

We have pointed out that there are two spirit-elevating directions of views in the fresco of ‘Heliodorus pursued and felled in the Temple’. These directions go from the lower left and lower right to the top of the picture. Together with the base line of the fresco, a straight horizontal line, these from a wide triangle within which sits at the end Onias. This triangle is supported by the two side scenes, each in a pyramid or triangle, and these side triangles support the main triangle. They are the three main triangles of Raphael’s composition. It is a rather strong structure, which gives its stability and eternity of the moment to the picture. The massive arches of the Temple also add to a sense of weight and immutability to the scene, even though Raphael kept them narrow and high.. But otherwise there is lively movement in the fresco. Many personages move. The women point, hold their children together, recline in surprise and horror. Men climb on columns. The horse prances and the angels fly. Heliodorus is not really fully lying down; he has fallen but still grasps his lance. His guards hinder each other; one man tramples on another and we see the open mouth of a shrieking soldier above Heliodorus. Heliodorus’ servants hurry out, heavily laden with boxes. Raphael brought a strong structure of composition in his picture, but that allowed him to be free to position his figures and to depict the action on both sides. There is however another aspect to Raphael’s composition that is the main element of his style in the Stanzas of the Vatican.

The room of the Stanza of Heliodorus is not a large hall and its ceiling is rather low since it is situated in old parts of the Vatican. Raphael tried to bring an illusion of deep space in his fresco and here also he sued quite traditional means, or at least: means that belonged to the Renaissance and also to antique Roman frescoes and had only recently been re-discovered in Raphael’s times, but that are well-known and recognised by style-analysts now. Raphael opened the scene in the centre and showed there, without figures, the marble floor of the Temple. On that floor are patterns that show the vanishing lines of perspective, which meet on the Torah scroll that lies on the altar of Onias. Raphael also painted such strong perspective lines in the columns and the arches around Onias. Raphael brought the columns more closely together in the distance and the arches are lower there. By such details he much enhanced the perspective of the architecture and thus evokes the illusion of great depth in the viewer that stands in the room. He opened the rear view of the Temple into a open window or door, showing the sky. Such detail always attracts the view of the spectator as if towards the far. The element brings a powerful illusion of space in the fresco, in the wall, so that the room looks much larger than it actually is. In this large space, Raphael placed his scenes of figures like in real, natural scenes. Raphael designed the fresco of Heliodorus with the mind of an architect. He had the space in mind, the view of his scenes in three dimensions. He conceived the space of the Temple and then he placed his groups like volumes in space. An architect is used to imagine in three dimensions. An architect imagines objects with volume in space and fine, genius architects can bring in their mind models of spatial arrangements and turn these, change objects in the space, as no other human can. Raphael seems to have imagined his three scenes and the Temple in three-dimensional space first and then staged his visions on the flat canvas. This is an aspect of Raphael’s art that is shown not only in the fresco of Heliodorus, but also in other paintings of the Stanzas of Raphael, such as in the magic ‘School of Athens’. Raphael could paint wonderful portraits and suave Madonnas. The finest characteristic of his grander scenes is his magnificent, powerful imagination of space and how to bring his vision into a perfect illusion on the canvas. Pope Julius II must have remarked Raphael’s power of three-dimensional vision. He soon appointed Raphael s the main architect of Saint Peter and it is after the paintings in the Stanzas of the Signatura and Heliodorus that Raphael worked on the grandest church and largest, monumental space of Europe.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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