Drape Me in Red

While Michelangelo was painting large-scale musculature in the Sistine Chapel, Northern Renaissance artists were depicting the same religious scenes with a seemingly opposite visual outlook. Gerard David’s Virgin and Child with Four Angels is only about a foot in length with meticulous detail in the background and golden pattern on the edge of Mary’s robe, suggesting that each brushstroke was produced with a single hair. As Michelangelo displays his artistic skill through his evident understanding of human anatomy, Gerard chooses to focus on the sumptuous red folds of Mary’s robe. The drapery itself does not reveal anything about the shape of Mary’s body, but takes on a life of its own to reflect Gerard’s technique and religious sentiment.

Luther once referred to Pope Leo X as one who “allows himself to be called an earthly god and even tries to command the angels in heaven,” as though this was a contradictory and blasphemous notion. However, the papacy at the time was actively asserting its power with precisely this kind of image through the patronage of art, science, and learning in general. Raphael’s portrait of Leo X is not only living proof of this widespread patronage, but it is a direct visual representation of the connection between the Church, art, and power. The different tones of red envelop the viewer in a way that forces him or her to come to terms with the Pope’s power as tangible and ubiquitous.

Pope Leo X with two cardinals (1518) by Raphael • Fashion by Giambattista Valli via Style

The oozing eroticism of Caravaggio’s Musicians , on the other hand, was meant for the eyes of a few, including his patron Cardinal Del Monte. Here, the red cloth provides a focal point for the complex composition, while echoing the languorous eyes and fleshy lips of the figures.

While Caravaggio suggests sensuality through composition and realistic elements, John Singer Sargent uses loose brushstrokes to convey an uninhibited sexuality that seems to explode beyond the edges of the page. Underlying the strokes of watercolor is a deep understanding of form and anatomy, as the red cloth flows into his groin and around his body. Although any specific area looks abstract, the overall effect is quite powerful, proving that sometimes the sketches are more interesting than the finished products.

Schiele’s Female Nude Seated on Red Drapery evokes a similar idea through contour and bold color, as the red drapery is merely a tool towards expressing a raw sensuality free from associations with religion, money, and power.