This is one of the stanze frescoes in the Vatican. The first commission Raphael received from Pope Julius II. was to decorate the four stanze (rooms) and the gallery leading to them, which he intended to occupy. These rooms are in the upper story of the Vatican, as the reader who has climbed wearily and breathlessly up to them will well remember. I used to wonder how Pope Julius could do it at his advanced age. One day the mystery was solved. I was shown the incline, up which, on the back of his white mule, Pope Julius rode. He refused to live in the splendid rooms occupied by Alexander VI., the Borgia Pope. Michelangelo painted the drama of humanity on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Pope Julius wished Raphael to represent in these rooms which he had chosen, the origin, power and final triumph of the church.
The Expulsion of Heliodorus is in the room known as the Stanza d’Elidora (The room of Heliodorus) . It is the greatest fresco in the room and one of the best in the whole series. It represents the driving out of Heliodorus from the Temple at Jerusalem.
The story is told in the third chapter of the second book of Maccabees, one of the apocryphal books of the Bible. Onias was high priest at Jerusalem. Simon, governor of the temple, had a grudge against Onias, so he went to Apollonius, the governor of Syria, and told him that the treasury in Jerusalem contained vast sums of money, besides that kept for the sacrifices, and that it was possible for the king to get it. When Apollonius told this to the king, he commanded his treasurer, Heliodorus, to go to the temple, get the money, and bring it to him. When Heliodorus came to Jerusalem he was courteously received by Onias. He told Onias what the king had heard, and that the king wished to know if the story was true, and if true, he had commanded him to take this money to Syria. Onias said, “It is indeed true that there is much money in the treasury; but it is kept for the relief of widows and orphans, and it would be a great wrong to give it up.” Heliodorus replied that his orders were to bring it to the king’s treasury.
A day was set to give up the money. The whole city was in commotion when they heard of it. The priests prostrated themselves before the altars and entreated God that this should not be allowed. Men and women, clothed in sackcloth, stood in the streets supplicating Heaven to deliver them from this evil. On the appointed day, Heliodorus went to the temple to remove the treasure. He and his guards were in the act of going away with it when a strange thing happened. Suddenly there appeared a horse, with a terrible rider upon him dressed in splendid armor. The horse ran fiercely and smote Heliodorus with his fore feet. Then two young men appeared, of great strength and great beauty, who stood by him and scourging him continually, “gave him many sore stripes.”
The center of the picture is occupied by a priest in prayer, and in the foreground horror-stricken spectators are grouped around the Papal chair on which Julius II. sits enthroned. It is supposed that the expulsion of Heliodorus typified the deliverance of the ecclesiastical states from the enemies of Papal authority by Julius II. It is said that the mounted horseman, trampling upon the prostrate Heliodorus, is a portrait of the magnificent Astorre Baglioni, of Perugia. The Baglioni ruled Perugia in the 15th century for a period of fifty years.
The heads of the family were two brothers, Guido and Ridolfo, who had between them eight splendid sons. They were so beautiful, writes Matarazzo, the historian of the family, that whenever the magnificent Guido, his son Astorre, or his nephew Gianpaola walked in the piazza, every citizen paused in his work to look at them ; strangers in the city would make every effort to see them, and the soldiers would hurry from their tents to watch them go by.
One September day in 1495, the Oddi and their followers, who once ruled in Perugia, but had been driven out by the Baglioni, suddenly appeared before the city gates, and broke the iron chains which barred the street. No one of the Baglioni was on the alert except Ridolfo’s son, young Simonetto, a lad of eighteen, fierce and cruel. He rushed forth alone, bareheaded, with sword in his right hand, and a buckler on his arm, and fought against a squadron. At the barrier of the piazza he kept his foes at bay, smiting men-at-arms to the ground with the sweep of his tremendous sword “and receiving on his gentle body twenty-two cruel wounds.” While thus at fearful odds, the noble Astorre, mounted on his white Barbary steed, rushed into the piazza. Upon his helmet flashed the falcon of the Baglioni with the dragon’s tail that swept behind, and bidding Simonetto tend his wounds, he held the square.
At this time the young Raphael was in Perugia, in the studio of Perugino. There is no doubt but that he rushed out when he heard the tumult in the piazza, and from some point of vantage saw the whole scene and treasured it in his memory. Then when he comes to paint for Pope Julius the horseman trampling down Heliodorus he gives him the face and figure of the magnificent Astorre Baglioni, as he saw him that day in the square, and makes him immortal in all his splendor by the matchless art of his craft.
( Originally Published 1912 )
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