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Should the reader find himself in London this autumn, a visit to the Royal Academy is in order, for the purpose of viewing something other the soiled bed linen and perverse pottery that have previously been displayed during their summer exhibitions. The new exhibition, “Treasures from Budapest: European Masterpieces from Leonardo to Schiele”, features paintings and drawings from Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Hungarian National Gallery. The show runs from September 25 through December 12th, and tickets may be obtained at the Royal Academy’s website.
One of the highlights of the exhibition – for The Courtier anyway – is Raphael’s Esterházy Madonna of 1508. Named for the princely Hungarian family that eventually acquired it in the 18th century, it is an unfinished jewel of a painting from one of the important periods in Raphael’s lifelong development of the image of the Madonna and Child. Stylistically, it is related to his other Madonnas set in sunny, Tuscan landscapes, from the period he spent in Florence absorbing the influence of Leonardo da Vinci, among others.
For example, take a look at the Madonna of the Goldfinch of 1505, in the Uffizi; his Madonna of the Meadow painted the same year, now in Vienna; and La Belle Jardinière in the Louvre, painted in 1507. All of these are cousins, if you will, of the Esterházy Madonna. They all show full-length figures of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and St. John the Baptist, spending time outdoors in an idealized landscape setting of the Tuscan countryside.
It is worth pointing out however, that the figures shown in the Esterházy Madonna seem to be more complicated than those in these other pictures. Raphael would sometimes paint half-length figures, as in a portrait, such as his Small Cowper Madonna of 1505, now in the National Gallery here in D.C. In these half-length images there is some movement, but usually in the form of one or both figures leaning or reaching for something. Similarly, in his full-length Madonnas such as the aforementioned, the Virgin Mary is usually shown to be seated and fairly restrained in her movements.
By contrast, the Virgin Mary in the Budapest picture is twisting and turning from a kneeling position. She seems to be holding back the Christ Child from slipping off the rock upon which He is seated, as He tries to grab for the scroll which has drawn the enrapt attention of St. John the Baptist, who himself is shown in a half-kneeling, half-crouched position next to her. There is a sense of twisting movement among the three figures individually, as they twist in concert around the pyramidal core established by their forms.
We know that Raphael moved from Florence to Rome in late 1508, and that there he began to come under the spell of Michelangelo.The Courtier not being enough of an expert on the subject to know precisely when the Esterházy Madonna was painted along the timeline of Raphael’s development, it is interesting to wonder whether Raphael was working on this piece when he moved to Rome and began to look at Michelangelo’s work – which is full of wriggling, writhing figures – or whether this shows that he had absorbed all he could of the tranquility of Florentine painting and was already prepared for the more robust work he was to find in Rome. Is this why he left the piece unfinished?
Admittedly, this is all pure armchair speculation, but it is an interesting piece to consider, particularly if you, gentle reader, like The Courtier, enjoy the wide variety of images of the Madonna and Child which Raphael produced during his short lifetime.