Artifacts & Archeology

Raphael’s First Signed Painting: The “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine” of Città di Castello

By Giancarlo Graziani and Salvatore Prato | Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, Raphael
Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, Raphael, 1501

In The Life of Raphael, Giorgio Vasari wrote: “…Raffaello, partitosi di Perugia, se n’ando con alcuni amici suoi a Città di Castello dove fece una tavola in Santo Agostino, di quella maniera e similmente in S. Domenico una d’un Crucifisso, la quale, se non vi fusse il suo nome scritto, nessuno la crederebbe opera di Raffaello, ma sì bene di Pietro. In San Francesco ancora della medesima città fece in una tavoletta lo Sposalizio di Nostra Donna…”.The “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine” (also known as “The Mystical Nuptials of St. Catherine of Alexandria with Saint Jerome and a Donor”) can be considered today the first work signed by Raphael: in fact, in 2010 the “(crypto)signature” in stylized letters “RAFFAEL SANT PXT” and the date 1501 in Roman numerals “MDI” were discovered inserted in the arabesque decoration of the border of Saint Catherine’s mantle (Fig. 1).

The presence of Raphael in Città di Castello in those years is proven by the historical sources and consolidated by studies and therefore the date shown on the “small tablet or small panel painting is perfectly consistent with the biographical events of the Artist who made in Città di Castello “many his works in painting made at that time, and of his first manner/style”, as reported by Abbot Filippo Titi in his book published in 1686.

Moreover, Raphael’s practice of affixing his signature and cryptosignature on paintings was his typical habit during his youthful period and it was also a practice of many other artists before becoming famous.

There are many examples of other artists who have affixed the so-called cryptosignature, as demonstrated by the recent discovery of Signorelli’s signature on Perugino’s “Crucifixion” in the Uffizi Gallery where in the “embroidered” edge of the Magdalene’s mantle, among the usual pseudocufic characters, there is a very probable cryptosignature by Signorelli (accompanied by the date 1480), according to a method already observed in the other paintings by Signorelli (as in the “Altarpiece of Saint Cecilia” in Città di Castello, precisely in the dress of Saint Catherine, in the predella of the “Altarpiece of Paciano”) and also by Perugino (as in the “Delivery of the Keys”, where the apostle looks and points behind the Redeemer).

Especially in his youthful period, Raphael used to hide his references, whether they were the full name or the monogram, in inscriptions containing intertwined characters and letters that are difficult to read at first sight, as it was actually in use in the workshop of his father Giovanni and of Perugino and among Perugino’s pupils. 

As the art historian Rona Goffen states in her 2003 article “Raphael’s Designer Labels: From the Virgin Mary to La Fornarina”, Perugino had provided a quasi-precedent for Raphael’s practice, embellishing the borders of costumes with markings that suggest inscriptions but which are in fact indecipherable, though it is unclear whether they are “purely decorative” or meant to suggest cufic writing, hence evoking the East. 

Elaborating – or reversing – the idea, Raphael sometimes embedded “decryptable” inscriptions among his insignificant ornaments. 

Fig. 1 – signature and date: RAFFAEL SANT PXT MDI (Raphael Santi Pinxit 1501) inserted in the arabesque decorations of St. Catherine’s draped garment

Whereas Perugino’s ornamental borders tease beholders into imagining that they might contain comprehensible text, Raphael’s letters are disguised as decoration, like in the “Niccolini-Cowper Madonna” where the date and signature are inserted with a monogram on the neckline, “appended to a series of insignificant hieroglyphs”.

The Work, already rediscovered and published in 1932 by Amadore Porcella – an appreciated art scholar who, among other things, reorganized the catalog of the Vatican Museums – was submitted to the opinion of eminent art historians who were unanimous on the authorship of Raphael as well as on belonging to your youthful period and it has also been the subject of more recent publications and exhibited in international museums and institutions.

The “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine” was probably commissioned in Città di Castello in the context of the Augustinian circle connected by very close ties with the Vitelli Family who ruled the city and were titular of the local Diocese with Giulio – Bishop from 1499 to 1503: for the local Church of Saint Augustine, Raphael made the “Baronci Altarpiece”, of which only fragments remain dispersed in several museums.

Since the beginning of its establishment, the Augustinian Order honored Saint Catherine of Alexandria by dedicating to her many churches and making her its Protectress because the Saint symbolized the “Wisdom” and therefore she was close to the religious Orders, like the Augustinian one, committed to the teaching.

No other paintings by Raphael are known with this subject which however Federico Zeri has put in relation with the painting with the same subject made by Francesco Floridi, known as “Francesco from Città di Castello”, labelling this painting by Floridi “from Raphael” with a clear reference to the Raphael’s version of which Floridi clearly replicates the central group, although with the figures in opposite positions. 

Floridi’s painting is stored at the Pinacoteca Comunale of Città di Castello and dates to the years 1504/1505, therefore dated immediately after the Raphael’s painting.

Francesco Floridi – who introduced in Valtiberina Area the artistic innovations of Raphael, taking inspiration and evoking the works that Raphael did in Città di Castello and his drawings – must have known this painting by Raphael very well, so much so that he took up the architecture for the“Enthroned Madonna with Child between St. Jerome and St. Florido” of Selci Umbro, the place of origin of the Vitelli Family and part of the Diocese of Città di Castello

Floridi and Raphael certainly knew each other because they were almost the same age (Raphael was born in 1483 and Francesco in 1485/7) and because Floridi’s father, Battista, was the guarantor of Raphael and Evangelista from Pian di Meleto in the commissioning contract of the “Baronci Altarpiece” for the Church of St. Augustine, signed on December 10, 1500.Recently restored by one of the greatest expert restorers, the “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine” represents further evidence of the incredible youthful artistic activity of Raphael, already called “Magister” at that age, and it must therefore be analyzed and compared in relation to the early works of Raphael, considering the Umbrian artistic tradition of the time and the artistic influences Raphael received from the great masters who were his first teachers – especially from Perugino – and it must be contextualize as used technique and as use of colors in the first evolutionary phase of Raphael’s artistic life which found its maximum splendor in the Roman and Florentine period.

Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, Raphael, 1501 | Backside

© Giancarlo Graziani, Visiting Professor of Art Economy, Founder member and Supervisor of Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy

© Salvatore Prato, Member of Ce.St.Art. – Center for Studies of Art Economy


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1. Literal translation: “…Raphael, left Perugia, went with some friends to Città di Castello where he painted a panel in the Church of Saint Augustine, in that manner, and similarly one of a Crucifix in Saint Dominic, which, if his name were not there written, no one would believe it to be a work by Raphael, but certainly by Pietro. In the Church of Saint Francis again in the same city he painted on a small tablet the Marriage of Our Lady …”.

2.  The Vasari’s quotation has always been referred to the Raphael’s “Marriage of the Virgin” stored at the Brera Art Gallery, but this painting measures 174 x 121 cm and many art historians are uncertain that this big size painting can be referred to as a “tavoletta” (small tablet or small panel painting) as well as the reference to the temple in perspective is open to ambiguity.

3. “Ammaestramento vtile, e curioso di pittura scoltura et architettura nelle chiese di Roma, palazzi Vaticano, di Monte Cauallo, & altri … Et in fine vn’aggiunta, doue è descritto il duomo di Città di Castello”.

4.  Amadore Porcella: “A Rediscovered Masterpiece by Raphael – The Mystic Nuptials of S. Catherine”, edited by The Pontifical Bolivarian University, 1932, 1965.

5.  Carlo Pedretti, 7/01/1996 e 14/09/2015; Nathalie Guttmann,1996 e 18/09/2015; Konrad Oberhuber, 1996 (verbal comunication to Nathalie Guttmann); Federico Zeri, ante 1998; Alessandro Vezzosi, 12/09/2015; Claudio Strinati, 20/09/2015. 

6.  1996: Otto Letze – Meinrad Maria Grewenig: Catalogue of the exhibition “Leonardo Da Vinci” – Wissenschaftler, Künstler, Erfinder, Wien: Historisches Museum im Schottenstift . 2010: Claudio Strinati – Alessandro Vezzosi: “Raffaello Universale”, Scripta Maneant Editions. 2011: Claudio Strinati: “Raphael”, Impremerie Nationale Èditions, Paris.


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