In this tiny Renaissance painting a soldier lies sleeping on the ground. In his dream, two women appear on either side of him, the personifications of Virtue and Pleasure. Virtue, identified by her sword and a book signifying valour and learning, stands in front of a steep path leading up to a palace, complete with drawbridge. Pleasure, or voluptas in Latin, stands temptingly on his right-hand side with her dress hitched up to reveal her underskirt. She holds a sprig of flowers (probably myrtle), a symbol of love, which is also woven into her flowing blonde hair. Behind Pleasure is a tranquil landscape, with a calm lake surrounded by rolling hills.
Allegorically, the painting suggests the soldier is at a crossroads in his life, torn between which path he should take: the one leading to honour and glory, which is difficult and stern; or the easier one which leads nowhere.
Raphael seems to make no judgment on which choice the soldier should make, other than that his head is lying towards Virtue.
One interpretation of the painting, in which Pleasure is emblematic of love, could be a question of whether the knight should follow his head or his heart. A different, more Platonic, reading would interpret the symbols held by Virtue and Pleasure as courage (the sword), mind (the book) and desire (the flowers). All three of these "gifts of the soul" - two of the spirit and one of the senses - are important for a man to be complete.
The narrative in ''Vision of a Knight" was most likely taken from a passage in the epic Latin poem Punica, written by Silius Italicus (ad 25-101). It tells the story of a young Roman soldier, Scipio Africanus, who, while resting under a bay tree, is visited by a vision of Virtue and Pleasure. It resembles the ancient legend of Hercules at the Crossroads, on which the Punica is based. Strong evidence for Silius' passage as the inspiration for the allegory comes from the fact that it is thought that the painting was made for a youthful member of the Sienese Borghese family named Scipione.
This young man may have been about to go on a long journey or been considering marriage, and the painting could have anticipated the difficult decisions that faced him.
Raphael designed the composition on paper before the image was transferred on to its wooden ground. A preliminary drawing of this kind is known as a cartoon, from the Italian cartone, meaning a large sheet of paper. The image would have first been drawn on paper measuring the same size as the intended final painting. The lines would then be picked through, placed on top of the panel, and charcoal dusted through the holes. This final part is called pouncing.
The cartoon for "Vision of a Knight" is now in the British Museum and can be seen on its website. As well as the picked holes, alterations from the original design can be easily seen. For example, in the cartoon Pleasure's dress has a plunging neckline. Raphael may have decided to temper her provocativeness slightly in order to emphasise her role as a personification of love rather than sexual desire.
"Vision of a Knight" is first recorded in the Borghese collection in the 17th century together with the "Three Graces", also by Raphael, now in the Musee Conde, Chantilly. The "Three Graces" is of identical size and style, showing three female nudes as personifications of Chastity, Beauty and Love. The similarity of the two paintings suggests they were commissioned as a pair, although in the 150 years they were in the collection they were not framed together. Perhaps originally they may have been framed back to back. They may have been kept in a cloth bag or drawer so that the owner could reflect intimately on the minute jewel-like qualities of the panels.
Karen Hosack is head of schools education at the National Gallery, which will present a season of Italian films chosen to reflect the spirituality and transcendence in Raphael's work. Two major documentaries to coincide with the exhibition will alsobe shown on BBC 1 and Channel Five.
British Museum: www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael) 1483-1520
Raphael's father, Giovanni Santi, was a painter and poet who ensured patronage for his son at the princely court of Urbino, where he was born.
Orphaned at the age of 11, he went to live with his uncle who was a priest.
By 1500, Raphael was an apprentice in the workshop of Perugino, one of Italy's foremost painters, mainly painting altarpieces, before moving to Florence near Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. There he was commissioned by Pope Julius II to decorate the papal apartments in Rome. Under Julius'
patronage, Raphael painted some of the great highlights of the high Renaissance, including a portrait of the pope himself.
'An Allegory (Vision of a Knight)' can be seen in the National Gallery's permanent collection until January 16 in a major exhibition charting the career of Raphael. The show will enable the allegory to be viewed alongside the cartoon from the British Museum. It will also contain many other loans, as well as the nine Raphaels from the Gallery's own collection, making the exhibition the most comprehensive display of Raphael paintings and drawings seen outside Italy.
National Gallery Education invites teachers and a guest to an education private view, Raphael: from Urbino to Rome on Friday, December 3, 6.30-8.30pm. For an invitation, telephone 020 7747 2424.
Experiment with the picking and pouncing method of transferring an image, either using a photocopy or the students' own cartoon compositions.
Learn about scale and perspective by measuring the size of the original painting and plotting the key areas. Using the zoomable image on the National Gallery website (www.nationalgallery.org.uk) find the tiny figures in the distance. Look for the three on horseback meeting at the crossroads.
Print the digital image of the cartoon from the British Museum website (www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk). Compare the picked cartoon to the final painting, spotting the differences between the two.
Ask students to think about a moral dilemma which they could illustrate in a similar pictorial way.
Discuss which qualities the students think are important in a human being and whether these are different for men and women. How could we illustrate these visually today?