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Tim Burton meets Raphael in the Darkness (and the Light)

Originally published 02 April 2014

On the anniversary of Raphael’s birthday, a group of friends and followers honour Hasan Niyazi, who loved and evangelised the work of Raphael, with posts we wish we could share with him. Raphael was widely mourned and his funereal procession was accompanied by 100 torchbearers. I’d like to think we, Hasan’s online friends, are each bearing a virtual torch with these blog posts in his memory.

Saint Cecilia, Raphael, c. 1515-16, Oil, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna

In Dec 2012, spurred on by my friend Hasan Niyazi’s enthusiasm for Raphael, I went to the Louvre in Paris to see the Late Raphael exhibition. What took me by surprise was the extent to which Raphael’s later art was dominated by Chiaroscuro. Raphael was clearly bewitched by twilight and moonlight in his later years, although of course he was only in his 30s in his ‘later years’.

In this post I follow the journey of Raphael’s descent into darkness, and find the spirit of his colour modes alive in the films of Tim Burton.

When I think of Raphael’s paintings, I’m probably not alone in thinking more of his brighter Unione style, exemplified by the beautiful Saint Catherine in London's National Gallery. Saint Cecilia, one of the major highlights of the exhibition, is thought to mark the turning point between ‘diurnal and nocturnal’ in Raphael’s paintings (ref 1). At first glance it looks to be painted in the Unione style – in that it is clearly a daylight scene and the colours appear harmoniously balanced. However, looking more closely, the sky is slightly darkened at the edges, and the colour balance is a bit odd. The deep reds and greens of Saint Paul’s robe, richer than the other muted robes, are balanced only by a dark shadow spilling out into the foreground between Cecilia and Mary Magdalene. It’s as if we can see the formation of the shadow that will, from this point forward, expand to envelope almost everything Raphael paints.

The curators point out that Raphael’s shift to the dark side wasn’t a sudden black and white matter (excuse the pun). He was, throughout his career, ‘possessed by an urge to experiment with different forms’ and to ‘employ for his own purposes the ideas of all his most significant contemporaries’. (ref 2) His most significant contemporary inhabiting the twilight zone, was of course, Leonardo.

We can see in his frescoes in the Room of Heliodorus a the Vatican (1511-14) extensive experimentation with moody night time light effects to suit the subject matter. By this time, Raphael had been familiar with Leonardo’s Sfumato effects for about 7 years, since 1504, when Raphael first arrived in Florence (according to Vasari).

The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Raphael, (1511-14), Fresco, Vatican City
The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple, Raphael, (1511-14), Fresco, Vatican City

Why Raphael chose this moment – roughly 1516 – to embrace the night, could be explained by Leonardo’s presence in Rome, living not far from the Vatican from 1514-1517. Raphael could therefore have been inspired by paintings such as the Mona Lisa and Saint John the Baptist, before Leonardo took them to France. (ref 3)

Given Raphael’s reputation for being an extremely nice person, I rather like the speculation that Raphael may have waited for Leonardo to leave Rome before he emulated his style, so as not to step on his toes. (ref 4)

Marcia Hall suggests that the taste in Rome changed around 1515 to dramatic narratives which naturally lent themselves to the strong contrasts of Chiaroscuro, which Raphael enthusiastically pursued. (ref 5)

La Perla, Raphael, c. 1519-20, Oil, Museo del Prado, Madrid
La Perla, Raphael, c. 1519-20, Oil, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Whatever the reason, Raphael’s ‘crepuscular’ phase – a favourite word of the exhibition – has moments of great beauty. La Perla, like Cecilia, is regarded to be mostly in Raphael’s own hand. The influence of Leonardo’s Virgin in the Rocks is clear, but Raphael’s colours are more saturated and more strongly illuminated. Bellezza di colore has not been sacrificed to the darkness here. Bellezza di colore or brilliant colour – was a highly valued property of paintings in early Renaissance Italy. (ref 6)

Incidentally, Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), made a copy of La Perla as part of his education, and the palette – in particular, the ‘pink, ultramarine blue, orange and bright green – appears in many of his early works.’ (ref 7)

Transfiguration of Christ, Raphael, 1516-1520, Oil, Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City

This richly coloured flavour of chiaroscuro culminated in The Transfiguration, which is the last painting Raphael produced, and is contemporary with La Perla. This colouration is also found in one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, The Raising of Lazurus, by Sebastiano di Piombo, which was commissioned at the same time as The Transfiguration as kind of a virtuosic paint off between the two masters.

Famously, Raphael employs the Unione style in the heavenly top half, and Chiaroscuro in the troubled bottom half. It shows Raphael’s modal thinking – his readiness to adjust his overall colour mode to suit the subject matter of his commission, even using two colour modes within one painting.

Marcia Hall concluded that ‘Shortly before his premature death, Raphael broke new ground….More explicitly than ever before, the concept that there is an appropriate mode for a particular content has been forcefully demonstrated and the expressive possibilities of colour have been extended to a new breadth.’ (ref 8)

When I previously wrote about Raphael’s Unione Mode, I had to really search for contemporary digital art that demonstrated a colouring close to it. In Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, I found moments of Unione, in amidst mostly twilight scenes. Now, when I think about Raphael’s range from Unione to Sfumato through to Chiaroscuro, Tim Burton springs to mind once again.

Just as Raphael applied colour modes to suit his subject matter, Tim Burton creates palettes to define his characters, their environments, and narrative sequences. Each palette is distinctive, harmonious, and strictly adhered to – so that when he does shift palettes, the emotional and narrative effect can be dramatic.

In The Nightmare before Christmas, 'Halloween Town' is a predominantly sepia toned Chiaroscuro, reminiscent of Caravaggio. In the magical ‘Christmas Town’ a more saturated Chiaroscuro emerges, the festive colours lending themselves to a more Raphael-like treatment.

Sepia toned Chiaroscuro colouring in Tim Burton
Sepia toned Chiaroscuro colouring in Tim Burton
Chiaroscuro in Tim Burton
Vibrantly coloured Chiaroscuro in Tim Burton

In Alice and Wonderland, Tim Burton’s predominant colour mode is a twilight Sfumato (literally translated as ‘smoky’). He paints a world without the saturation of direct sunlight, with soft and unnatural colours. Above ground, where one would expect full saturation on a summer’s day, the insipid wedding crowd is instead desaturated. There are selected scenes which seem to brighten Sfumato almost as much as he can without actually declaring daylight. There is always a tinge of twilight, but fleeting moments do feel very much in the spirit of Raphael’s Unione. And emerging from the shadows of the majority of this film, these moments feel radiant.

Sfumato colour treatment in Tim Burton
Sfumato colour treatment in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Unione colour treatment in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Unione colour treatment in Alice in Wonderland
Cennini colouring in Edward Scissorhands
Cennini colouring in Edward Scissorhands

In Edward Scissorhands, I was delighted to find a wonderful execution of the Cennini colour mode. (The Cennini mode pre-dated Raphael, and simply put, involved pure colours brightened by white, and fully saturated in the shadows, without black.) His suburbia is a blinding pure-colour utopia, brightened with white only – unnaturally - without shadow or stain. Edward’s Gothic mansion is, by contrast, a smoky Sfumato.

Sfumato colouring of Edward Scissorhands
Sfumato colouring of Edward Scissorhands

In moments of heightened drama, I found a Raphael flavour of Chiaroscuro. Suburbia glows in the dark, illuminated by Christmas lights and police neon. In the story, Edward’s spirit lives on, after his staged death, creating magical snow from his creative fevers. The epic, biblical feel of this scene recalls for me Raphael’s Transfiguration.

Raphaelesque Chiaroscuro colouring in Tim Burton

Raphael’s Chiaroscuro influenced generations of artist such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Beccafumi, Veronese, and Caravaggio. Tim Burton, meanwhile, is a master colourist of our time. He delights in the darkness of Sfumato and Chiaroscuro – and just when we feel at home in the twilight, he casts us into a soft dream-like Unione or a surreally bright Cennini scene. Whether by design or cultural DNA, the spirit of Raphael can be seen in Tim Burton’s multi-modal thinking.

It’s a shame I never saw Tim Burton’s retrospective exhibition of artworks at the MOMA in 2009, but his MOMA interview is still available. (Note he doesn’t talk about colour in this interview.)

I really love his artist’s statement from the exhibition catalogue:

‘Growing up in Burbank, there wasn’t much of a museum culture. I never visited one until I was a teenager (unless you count the Hollywood Wax Museum). I occupied my time going to see monster movies, drawing, and playing in the local cemetery. Later, when I did start frequenting museums, I was struck by how similar the vibe was to the cemetery. Not in a morbid way, but both have a quiet, introspective, yet electrifying atmosphere. Excitement, mystery, discovery, life and death all in one place. So all these years later, to have this exhibition, to be showing things – which weren’t meant to ever be seen, or are just pieces of a bigger picture is very special to me.’ (ref 9)


1. Henry, T, and Joannides, P, eds, Late Raphael (Exhibition Catalogue): Thames & Hudson (2013), p. 52. 2. Henry et al. Ibid p. 24 3. Henry et al. Ibid p. 52 4. Henry et al. Ibid p. 53 5. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 113. 6. Hall Ibid. p. 67. 7. Salomon, Xavier F, Veronese (Exhibition Catalogue), National Gallery Company, London (2013), pp. 45-47. 8. Hall Op sit p. 136. 9. Magliozzi, Ronald S, and Jenny He, Tim Burton, The Museum of Modern Art, 2009, p.6


Raphael, Transfiguration, and Hasan from 3PP A tribute blog post to Hasan from Alberti's Window, referring specifically to The Transfiguration

Hasan Niyazi's Art History blog, still accessible today


Other Posts in Honour of Hasan Niyazi


Archived Comments

Edward Goldburg 02 April 2014 “Posts we wish we could share with him…” That sums it up beautifully! I doubt that a day passes when many of us don’t find ourselves composing e-mails in our minds… In passing effortlessly from Raphael to Tim Burton, you express the extraordinary range of Hasan’s interests!
David Packwood 04 April 2014 Great post! I read a lot of Marcia Hall’s stuff on renaissance modes of colouring some years ago, but it’s fascinating to see this considered in terms of current films/popular culture. It also makes a change from Caravaggio who is the old master that people go to for analogies between chiaroscuro and movies. I think Leonardo’s “dark manner” was selected by Raphael to empahsise themes of spirituality and blindness in the Transfiguration. He also borrowed light effects from Durer for the Liberation of St Peter. David
Alberti's Window 06 April 2014 Great post! I am a big fan of Tim Burton’s work, and I really like the parallels that you have drawn between his use of color and that of Renaissance/Baroque artists. I’ve always been intrigued by Raphael’s “Transfiguration of Christ,” since Raphael died before that painting was completed. We can see in the painting, though, that Raphael’s pupils (who finished the painting) stayed true to the master’s interest in chiaroscuro.
Sedef 08 April 2014 Thank you for this colorful post. I was so amazed when I had read you post “Shades of Unreal” about the color modes in 3D games on 3PP back in 2011. Until that point I had never considered the possibility of a connection between the two genres. With that post you and Hasan had introduced a new way of looking at my contemporary environment. I did get a chance to see Tim Burton’s amazing exhibit at MOMA and after reading your post I am fantasizing about a museum exhibit when they combine the two. Thank you for bringing in a unique point of view to #raphaelhasan.


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