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Raphael Sanzio, Incomparable Master of the Madonna

Updated on March 05, 2015
Raphael, Madonna of the Meadow (a. 1506) - detail, Wien Kunsthistorsches Museum
Raphael, Madonna of the Meadow (a. 1506) - detail, Wien Kunsthistorsches Museum | Source

Raphael and the Theme of the Madonna

Giorgio Vasari begins his biography about Raphael Sanzio with these words: “How much the heaven was generous and benign in accumulating in a single person the infinite riches of his treasures and all those graces and rare gifts that it is used to share among many people in a long space of time, it could be seen clearly in the so excellent as graceful Raphael Sanzio from Urbino.” This sentence contains the essence of the Raphael’s art: the natural grace, so easy, so far from any apparent effort, that he achieves in most of his compositions. This is especially true for the subject that probably he most loved and that he attended for all his life: the representation of the Madonna with the Child. Of course, this was a subject already very represented, a classic that his master Perugino had brought to a high level of quality, appreciated and requested also by private “collectors”. Raphael continued the consolidated tradition, starting from where Perugino had arrived. He infuses a new life and he finds new ways for a model that had reached a sort of static perfection and that was continuously repeated with insignificant variations.

Raphael had lost his mom at the age of eight. So, someone has argued that his continued return on this subject, his statuary and graceful Madonnas are an idealization of the missing figure of the mom.

Perugino, Madonna with Child (a. 1500), Washington National Gallery
Perugino, Madonna with Child (a. 1500), Washington National Gallery | Source
Raphael, the two popular cherubs of the Sistine Madonna
Raphael, the two popular cherubs of the Sistine Madonna | Source

Tradition and Innovation

We know about thirty Madonnas by Raphael. He innovates constantly this theme, trying different schemes and introducing vital variations to the schemes already experienced. The most interesting pictures are probably those intended for a private devotion, rather than those, more eloquent, for the public commissions. The group of the subjects (the Madonna, the Child, St. John, St. Joseph….) is pictured in a new intimacy. They interact and participate of a naturalness that is completed by the landscape in which usually they are merged and that is an integral part of the composition. The Madonna becomes a symbol of beauty and maternity, the centre of the family. The typical colours of her dress, codified by the tradition, are the red, symbolizing the passion of Christ (or the kingship: the Madonna is Queen), and the blue, symbolizing the Church (or the maternity: the Madonna is Mother).

Three Periods of Inspiration

Usually, the Raphael’s production is divided into three periods: the apprenticeship at the workshop of his father Giovanni Santi in Urbino and, according to Vasari, at the workshop of Perugino, in Perugia; the Florentine period (1504 – 1508); the Roman period (1508 – 1520). The pictures of the Madonna follow the same subdivision and we can easily distinguish the evolution of his art along these three time periods. Raphael absorbs and reworks the models of Perugino and Leonardo during his Florentine period, arriving to produce some masterpieces of harmony and equilibrium. He produces some important altarpieces and more complex Madonnas with Child during the Roman period, when he is at the height of his success.

Raphael, Madonna Connestabile (1500 - 1504), Saint Petersbourg Hermitage Museum
Raphael, Madonna Connestabile (1500 - 1504), Saint Petersbourg Hermitage Museum | Source
Raphael, Madonna Solly (1500-1504), Berlin Gemäldegalerie
Raphael, Madonna Solly (1500-1504), Berlin Gemäldegalerie | Source

Main Works of the Apprenticeship

  • Madonna Solly (1500-1504)
  • Madonna Diotallevi (1500-1504)
  • Madonna Connestabile (1500-1504)

The Apprenticeship (1548 - 1504)

Raphael engaged with the picture of the Madonna since his first apprenticeship, so much so that one of his very first works is considered to be the Casa Santi Madonna (a. 1498) a fresco found in the house where he was born, formerly attributed to his father. Several other paintings of Madonna with Child, such as the Madonna Solly, the Madonna Diotallevi, the Madonna Connestabile, date between 1500 and 1504, when Raphael was between 17 and 21 years old. They repeat the traditional scheme consolidated by Perugino, however Raphael demonstrates to have a personal vision. In the Madonna Solly, the Child plays with a small bird and he looks up the sacred book that the Madonna is keeping in her right hand. In the Madonna Connestabile, he seems even to read the open book that the Madonna holds in her hand. It is evident the Raphael’s attempt to build a higher interaction between the characters. In the Madonna Connestabile, the landscape is more than a decorative element: it participates and contributes to the serenity of the picture. For this painting, Raphael adopts the round shape (tondo) that he will use again in several subsequent works (e.g. the Madonna della Seggiola and the Alba Madonna). The round shape was in vogue in Florence for the private devotional images, because it confers a greater intimacy to the scene.

Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna with Child, St. Anne and the Lambkin (a. 1510), Paris Louvre - The painting probably derives from the lost carton that Rapahel might have seen in Florence
Leonardo da Vinci, Madonna with Child, St. Anne and the Lambkin (a. 1510), Paris Louvre - The painting probably derives from the lost carton that Rapahel might have seen in Florence | Source
Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1498 - 1508), London National Gallery - An earlier version is conserved at the Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci, Virgin of the Rocks (1498 - 1508), London National Gallery - An earlier version is conserved at the Louvre | Source

Main Works of the Florentine Period

  • Madonna Terranuova (a. 1505)
  • Madonna of the Meadow (1506)
  • Madonna of the Goldfinch (a. 1506)
  • La Belle Jatdinière (1507)
  • Madonna of the Grand Duke (a. 1506)
  • Canigiani Holy Family (a. 1508)
  • Madonna Tempi (1508)

The Florentine Period (1504-1508)

Raphael moved to Florence in 1504, probably with the intention of completing his preparation in one of the most important art centre in Italy and finding new commissions. The first purpose was fully accomplished. In Florence Raphael could assimilate the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, determinant for the evolution of his art. At the end of 1500 Leonardo is back in Florence. His carton of the Virgin with the Child and St. Anne is exhibited at the church of Santissima Annunziata. The carton, that is lost, had a great success. Vasari tells that the Florentines of every class for two days queued to see it. This carton is probably the origin of the painting that is housed at the Louvre nowadays (Saint Anne, the Madonna, the Child and the Lambkin) and it may have influenced Raphael (as well as the Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo) in the pose and the pyramidal disposition of the figures. Also the Virgin of the Rocks, supposed that Raphael was able to see it, seems to be recalled in the gesture of the Madonna Terranuova and in the pose of the Madonna Esterhazy.

The second purpose was not so successfully achieved. In fact, the most important commissions in the period 1504 – 1508 (such as the Pala Ansidei) continue to arrive from Urbino and Perugia, where Raphael is well known. Despite of this, he makes in these years some of his most famous Madonnas: the Madonna of the Meadow, the Madonna of the Goldfinch, La Belle Jardinière…. In all these compositions, the Madonna occupies the centre of the picture, graceful and monumental at the same time, watching at the games of children Jesus and St. John. The group is perfectly fused with the landscape. According to an anecdote told by Vasari, two of these paintings (identified with the Madonna Terranuova and the Madonna of the Meadow) were realized by Raphael, “who was kindness itself” (Vasari), to repay Taddeo Taddei, a rich bourgeois who generously was used to accommodate him at his table.

Madonna Terranuova

Raphael, Madonna Terranuova (a. 1505), Berlin Gemäldegalerie
Raphael, Madonna Terranuova (a. 1505), Berlin Gemäldegalerie | Source

The name derives from the Dukes of Terranuova, who owned the painting until 1854, when it was bought by the Berlin Museums. It has been identified as one of the two panels that Raphael donated to Taddeo Taddei (the other one is the Madonna of the Meadow). Raphael breaks away from the model of Perugino and adopts the pyramidal scheme used by Leonardo in his carton of the Virgin with St. Anne. The figure of the Madonna rises at the centre of the scene, separating the rocky landscape on the left from the city that appears on the right. Her gesture recalls the Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks.

Madonna of the Meadow (or Madonna del Belvedere)

Raphael, Madonna of the Meadow (1506), Wien Kunthistorisches Museum - The painting is dated 1506 on the hem of the Virgin's dress
Raphael, Madonna of the Meadow (1506), Wien Kunthistorisches Museum - The painting is dated 1506 on the hem of the Virgin's dress | Source

This panel is attested to be housed at Taddei family home in XVII century, hence it is identified as the second painting, defined by Vasari as that one “very better”, which Raphael donated to Taddeo Taddei in gratitude for his hospitality. Raphael employs the pyramidal structure he had used in the Madonna Terranuova, but here the three figures (the Madonna, the Child and the young St. John) are represented in full and are inserted in a wide landscape. The interaction between the characters (the child playing with the crucifix of St. John and the Madonna keeping him and watching St. John) is admirably harmonious, as it is the contrast between the red and blue of the Madonna’s dress and the green-yellow of the meadow, while the blond hair of the Madonna and the clear colour of her face are surrounded by the light blue of the sky. The painting has several analogies with the Goldfinch Madonna, presumably executed in the same year.

Madonna of the Goldfinch

Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch (a. 1506), Florence Uffizi
Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch (a. 1506), Florence Uffizi | Source

This famous painting, accurately described by Vasari, was realized for the rich Florentine merchant Lorenzo Nasi, in the occasion of his wedding with Sandra Canigiani, in 1506. It has a tormented history. The house of the Nasi family, where it was hosted, ruined in 1546 and the panel was found broken in 17 fragments that were restored by the Florentine painter Ghirlandaio. Several other restorations followed in the centuries, until the last one in 2008 that took ten years and was realized after careful studies. The scheme is the same used in the Madonna of the Meadow. Here the group of the figures has a greater verticality, accentuated by the trees in the foreground. The clouds, arranged in a semicircle in the sky, form a sort of natural aureole around the Madonna’s head.

La Belle Jardinière

Raphael, La Belle Jardiniere (1507), Paris Louvre - Signed RAPHAELLO URB. on the hem of the Virgin's mantle and dated MDVII near the elbow
Raphael, La Belle Jardiniere (1507), Paris Louvre - Signed RAPHAELLO URB. on the hem of the Virgin's mantle and dated MDVII near the elbow | Source

The painting is usually identified as the panel that Raphael realized for Filippo Sergardi, cleric of the Pope Leo X de’ Medici. It was purchased by the French King Francis I and it is known with the name of Belle Jardinière since the XVIII century. It is a further variation of the scheme used in the Madonna of the Meadow and the Madonna of the Goldfinch. The pyramidal position of the group is more elaborated: the Madonna is represented by three quarters and is turned towards the Child. The pose of the Child, placed on a foot of the Madonna, recalls the analogue pose used by Michelangelo in the Madonna of Bruges.

Madonna of the Grand Duke

Raphael, Madonna of the Grand Duke (a. 1506), Florence Palazzo Pitti
Raphael, Madonna of the Grand Duke (a. 1506), Florence Palazzo Pitti | Source

This celebrated painting is dated around 1504 but its origin is unknown. It was bought from a Florentine merchant by the Director of the Uffizi in 1800, with permission of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III. The Grand Duke is said to have loved very much this picture that was hanging in his bedroom: this is the reason of the name by which it is known. The painting is remarkable for its simplicity: the Madonna and the Child emerge from the dark background and are pictured in an equilibrated intimacy. The Madonna’s face is veiled by a shadow of sadness which may prelude to the passion of Christ. It is not sure that the so effective dark background is by hand of Raphael. The studies by X- rays have revealed a different pre-existent background, showing an arched window open on a landscape. On the other hand, this different background is not testified by any author, since when the painting is known in 1799.

Canigiani Holy Family

Raphael, Canigiani Holy Family (1507-1508), Monaco Alte Pinakothek - Signed RAPHAEL URBINAS on the neckline of the Virgin's dress
Raphael, Canigiani Holy Family (1507-1508), Monaco Alte Pinakothek - Signed RAPHAEL URBINAS on the neckline of the Virgin's dress | Source

The painting was commissioned by Domenico Canigiani, one of the wealthy bourgeois who admired the sacred art of Raphael, probably in the occasion of his wedding with Lucrezia Frescobaldi in 1507. It entered later the Medici’s collections and then was brought to Germany by Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici, when she married to John William II of Wittelsbach-Neuburg. Raphael has enriched the group of figures in the foreground, building a holy family with Elisabeth and St. Joseph. The construction is a perfect triangle, on the example of the Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, with the Maria and Elisabeth in a specular position and Joseph at the centre, as the authority that Elisabeth is looking at. Maria is watching the children instead. With respect to other compositions, the landscape shows a greater presence of human signs, represented by the towers (civil power) on the right and the church (religious power) on the left. The angels on the two upper corners have been discovered recently, when some layers of posterior paint have been removed.

Madonna Tempi

Raphael, Madonna Tempi (1508), Monaco Alte Pinakotheke
Raphael, Madonna Tempi (1508), Monaco Alte Pinakotheke | Source

It is one of the last works by Raphael in Florence. It recalls the simplicity of the Madonna of the Grand Duke. The Madonna is figured as a mother tied to his child by a gesture of intimate affection. The soft colours and the landscape just suggested accentuate the private aspect of the protective gesture of the Madonna. The work is mentioned to be in the house of the Tempi family, in Florence, in the XVII century. It was bought by Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1829.

Raphael, Madonna Esterhazy (1508), Budapest Szépművészeti Múzeum
Raphael, Madonna Esterhazy (1508), Budapest Szépművészeti Múzeum | Source

Main Works of the Roman Period

  • Madonna of Foligno (1511)
  • Sistine Madonna (1513)
  • Madonna of Loreto (a. 1511)
  • Madonna della Seggiola (a. 1513)
  • Alba Madonna (1508-1511)

The Roman Period (1508 - 1520)

In 1508 Raphael leaves Florence and moves to Rome, where he will stay until his death, in 1520. According to Vasari, he had been called there by Bramante, architect of the pope Julius II and fellow citizen to Raphael. Raphael has grown during his stay in Florence, he has known and assimilated the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, now he is sure of his own means and can aspire to the great commissions that Florence had negated to him and that Rome, in a phase of renovation under the pontificate of Julius II, can offer now. The work that can symbolize the passage from Florence to Rome is the unfinished Madonna Esterhazy, begun in Florence and probably prosecuted in Rome, as it can be deduced from the ruins portrayed in the background.

The Roman period marks the consecration of Raphael as one of the most appreciated master in the high Renaissance. He works at the Vatican suites of the new Pope, while Michelangelo is working at the Sistine Chapel: we are at the apogee of the Renaissance. He works to large altarpieces, commissioned by important prelates, less intimate and more “narrative” than the Madonnas of the Florentine period. The Madonnas with Child that he continues to produce (e.g. the Alba Madonna and the Madonna della Seggiola) become more complex and testify the high degree of mastery he has reached.

Madonna of Foligno

Raphael, Madonna of Foligno (a. 1511), Vatican City Pinacoteca Vaticana
Raphael, Madonna of Foligno (a. 1511), Vatican City Pinacoteca Vaticana | Source
Madonna of Foligno - Detail
Madonna of Foligno - Detail | Source

The painting was commissioned by the secretary of Julius II, Sigismondo de’ Conti, in 1511, probably as a votive because his house in Foligno had escaped to a disastrous event. Sigimondo de’ Conti died in 1512 and the panel was placed on the altar of the Roman church Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where he had been buried, and successively moved to Foligno, in the monastery of St. Anne. The wood was transferred to canvas at end of the XVIII century. The figures portrayed on the ground are (left to right): the Saints Francis, John the Baptist and Gerolamo and Sigismondo de’ Conti, kneeling, depicted pale and emaciated (he had died before the completion of the painting). On the foreground are visible the buildings of a village (Foligno?) overhung by a rainbow and a flaming object falling on a house (the object of the votive). An “atmospheric” landscape corresponds to the terrestrial landscape: the cherubs formed by the clouds crown the figure of the Madonna and the Child who overlook the village.

Sistine Madonna

Raphael, Sistine Madonna (1513), Dresden Gemäldegalerie
Raphael, Sistine Madonna (1513), Dresden Gemäldegalerie | Source

The Sistine Madonna is one of the most known Raphael’s works. The two angels at the bottom of the painting have become a pop icon. It was probably commissioned by Pope Julius II for the church of San Sisto in Piacenza. Julius II had two good reasons for this commission: he was devoted to San Sisto and Santa Barbara, both buried in the church in Piacenza, and he wished to show his gratitude to the city that had supported him in the war against Louis XII. The painting was sold to Augustus III of Saxony in 1513. The composition partially re-takes the scheme of the Madonna of Foligno that it follows by about one year. The Madonna and the Child appear to the Saints Sisto and Barbara, two angels at the bottom of the picture watch curious the scene. San Sisto seems to have the appearance of pope Julius II, the Madonna has the face of the “Fornarina”, the daughter of the Senese Francesco Luti, loved by Raphael. Despite the work describes a divine event, the “physicality” of the Madonna, portrayed in her terrestrial beauty, the gestures of the Saints, the expressions of the two cherubs confer the picture a familiar aspect that approaches it to the faithful.

Madonna of Loreto

Raphael, Madonna of Loreto (1511), Chantilly Musée Condé
Raphael, Madonna of Loreto (1511), Chantilly Musée Condé | Source

This painting was executed by Raphael for the Roman church of Santa Maria del Popolo, maybe for a commission of Pope Julius II or maybe of the rich banker Agostino Chigi (the appellation of Madonna di Loreto might derive from the name of the chapel, decorated by Raphael, that the banker had bought in the church). Raphael uses a fairly new arrangement in the representation of the Holy Family. The group is represented in the intimacy of a room, the Madonna plays with the Child, who shows his amusement. The veil with which the Madonna and the Child play alludes to the shroud, i.e. to the passion of Christ, the awakening of the Child alludes to the Resurrection of Christ. However, these religious meanings are confused in the familiarity of the scene.

Madonna della Seggiola

The most beautiful picture in the world, I am convinced, is Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola

— Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1858
Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola (a. 1513), Florence Palazzo Pitti
Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola (a. 1513), Florence Palazzo Pitti | Source

“The most beautiful picture in the world, I am convinced, is Raphael’s Madonna della Seggiola.” Nathaniel Hawthorne writes these words in his note-book, after the visit to Palazzo Pitti in 1858. The Madonna della Seggiola demonstrates once again how Raphael continues to search new solutions for the representation of the Madonna. The striped cloth around the head, the coloured shawl, the chair are characteristics that make the Madonna near to a commoner woman who cradles her child. Someone has observed that the dress of the Madonna is simply a transposition of the costume of his loved woman (the so called Fornarina), that he had portrayed, for example, in the Sistine Madonna. Anyway, it is evident that Raphael is interested in rendering the maternal gesture by which the Madonna inclines towards the Child and clings to him. He wants to increase the participation of the faithful to the scene.

Alba Madonna

Raphael, Alba Madonna (1508-1511), Washington National Gallery
Raphael, Alba Madonna (1508-1511), Washington National Gallery | Source

The Alba Madonna is commonly dated in the early Roman period, between 1508 and 1511. As many other paintings, it has a quite adventurous history. It is reported to be in the monastery of the Olivetani, in Nocera dei Pagani (province of Salerno) in the XVII century. Then it changed hands several times: it belonged to the Viceroy of Naples, to the Duke of Alba (from whom it is named) and finally, in 1836 it was bought by the Czar Nicholas I, who placed it at the Hermitage Museum, where it was transferred from the round panel to a squared canvas. A century later, the canvas is among the paintings that the Soviet government sold to the American collector Andrew W. Mellon. The collection of Mellon was later donated to the National Gallery of Washington, actual home of the Alba Madonna. With respect to the Madonnas with Child of the Florentine period, the painting has lost some immediacy, in favour of a more elaborated, but still natural, layout. The blue of the Madonna’s dress is predominant and gives the picture a sensation of quiet, accentuated by the light blue of the mountain and the sky in the foreground. The arched position of the Madonna follows the round shape of the panel, the influence of Michelangelo is evident in the torsion and the plasticity of the bodies.

© 2015 Massimo Viola

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