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Raphael Altarpiece Panels Reunited After 300 Years

More than three centuries after it was dismantled, Raphael's Renaissance masterwork, the "Colonna Altarpiece," is intact again -- temporarily. The altarpiece is one of the highlights of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's summer exhibitions.

Raphael is called "The Prince of Painters" by art scholars as the youngest of the three great artistic masters of the Renaissance. The other two were Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael was a much-admired painter, creating large-scale frescoes for the Vatican and tapestries for the Sistine Chapel. He painted some of the most prized and reproduced holy pictures of the era. Raphael's early death at age 37 made the body of work he produced in his 20-year career all the more sought after.

Curator Linda Wolk-Simon called Raphael one of the greatest influences in the history of Western art.

"I think Raphael rightly is regarded as a timeless painter," she said. "I mean, perhaps his art will not appeal to every single individual who crosses the threshold, but there are certain artists, who through their creations, their originality, their innovations and their influence, really sort of ascend to a pinnacle in a cannon, and that, provided we accept that the idea of a cannon exists, I think Raphael's place in that cannon is really undisputed."

The main panel of the altarpiece depicts the Madonna on a throne with child and various saints. Fransciscan nuns commissioned Rafael to paint the "Colonna Altarpiece" for their church in 1504. It was the last major altarpiece Raphael created. The nuns broke up the altarpiece in 1663, selling the panels to pay off debts.

It became known as the "Colonna Altarpiece" after the noble Roman Colonna family possessed it for more than a century. In 1901, J. Pierpont Morgan, the American financier and collector, purchased the main panel of "Colonna Altarpiece" for 2 million francs, a phenomenal sum at the time. He left it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1916, shortly after his death.

Morgan was last of many illustrious owners of the altarpiece, including Queen Christina of Sweden, the French Duke of Orleans, kings of Sicily, and Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a prominent early animal and workers rights advocate. Wolk-Simon says the people who owned parts of the altarpiece are so interesting that a room in the exhibit was dedicated to just the owners.

"It is an extremely fascinating and multi-stranded story, because that altarpiece is broken up in the 17th century and the pieces went on separate paths to enter collections of various different owners," she explained. "And they are a fascinating cast of characters, some of the greatest collectors in the history of Western art."

The exhibition "Raphael at the Metropolitan" also includes select drawings and paintings predating the altarpiece and work from several artists thought to have influenced Raphael's style.

Wolk-Simon says the exhibit offers a chance not only to see Raphael's work, but also to understand his technique and process.

"This a really wonderful and unique opportunity for the public to see drawings and paintings by this brilliant renaissance master and to appreciate the drawings as sort of glimpses into his creative and working process," she added.

Wolk-Simon says this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the altarpiece intact. The exhibition closes September 3 and the panels return to their different owners.