When we think of Renaissance painting, we often "in the same breath" so to speak, think of what we might call the big three, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael, artists so familiar that we know them by their first names only. And for the most part, we know their work even more intimately in that we can immediately pull up mental images of Leonardo's Last Supper, Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, or Raphael's...well, here we founder a bit. Raphael's what? His Madonnas? His Ascension? His School of Athens? His Expulsion of Heliodorus? His Liberation of St. Peter from Prison? His Mass of Bolsena? His Fire in the Borgo? Hmmmm...looks like we're in need of an art history lesson.
"The big three" were acquainted with one another but hardly friends. First of all, they represented three different generations. Leonardo, the elder, born in 1452, was not on speaking terms with Michelangelo, whom he considered an impudent, upstart rival; and not without good reason. Leonardo had a brilliant mind but was infamous for taking on more than he could possibly complete, leaving dozens of projects unfinished. Michelangelo, born in 1475, was an impudent young upstart, and definitely a rival, but at least he finished most of his major commissions (except for the tomb of Julius II). Raphael, the youngest of the three, born in 1483, was also the most amiable of the three with the best reputation for completing what he started. Michelangelo hated him, looking upon Raphael with much the same distaste as Leonardo did him, even though there was only eight years difference in their ages. Given the fact that there was some 30 years difference in age between Leonardo and Raphael, little is known of anything more than a nodding acquaintance between them.
Why is it then that we know the name but are so unfamiliar with the work of Raphaello de Sanzio? Well, first he worked constantly in the shadow of Michelangelo...and a huge shadow it was. Second, while he could be relied upon to complete that which he started, his one failing (if you could call it that) was that he never completed his life. He died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 1520 at the age of 37, leaving behind his lone unfinished painting, his work depicting the Transfiguration and ascension of Christ into Heaven. (It was later completed by his assistants.) The third reason is that Michelangelo long outlived both his rivals (Leonardo died in 1519); and his star continued to rise (as did Leonardo's in spite of his death). With Raphael, that was not the case. He left a dozen or more major masterpieces but none were to become art icons. His School of Athens comes close, and is on a par with anything (other than Michelangelo's ceiling) done by the other two. However it seems his work is either too cerebral or two "sweet" (sometimes both at the same time) to have earned him the "superstar" status he so richly deserved. Though his memory glowed for a short time after his death, only in the 1800s did his work come to be really "studied" and admired again. Who knows, maybe it will take another hundred years or so before we can call to mind his Disputa with the same ease we can Michelangelo's Last Judgement.