I was very pleased to read that Germany has issued a commemorative postage stamp celebrating the 500th anniversary of the creation of one of the most beautiful paintings in the world, Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”. This painting, or at least the lower part of it, is probably well-known to many of my readers who are not Catholic or familiar with art history because of the two small angels in the picture, who are resting their arms on the edge of the frame. They have been adapted and used in all kinds of advertising campaigns and commercial products over the years, and have become something of an iconic image in themselves. That being said, it is the main portion of the work itself, that of Mary holding Jesus, which is of singular importance.
The “Sistine Madonna” was commissioned in 1512 for the Benedictines of the Monastery of Saint Sixtus – hence the term “Sistine” – in the town of Piacenza, to be placed above the high altar there in the center of their monastic church. Since 1754 however, this magnificent and highly influential work of art has been – apart from a ten-year-period after World War II when it was stolen by the Soviets – the pride of the city of Dresden. In that year, it was purchased from the monastery by Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony, who placed it in his palace in Dresden, and ever since it has drawn a crowd. Indeed, Augustus apparently rearranged his throne room so as to be able to better see and display the painting.
Raphael is one of the “Big Three” of the Italian High Renaissance, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. He is something of a Mozart-like figure in art history, having produced seemingly effortlessly a large number of important works of art before he died in his 30’s, leaving the world wondering what he might have gone on to achieve had he lived longer. While he could paint insightful portraits and magnificent frescoes, without question Raphael has always been best-loved as THE painter of scenes of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. Over the course of his comparatively short career, Raphael took this seemingly simple theme, and came up with an almost infinite number of variations on it.
The image of Mary cradling her Son in her arms is an ancient one in Christian art. The first known artistic representation of it dates from about 200 A.D., in the form of a wall fresco located in the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Once Christianity was no longer outlawed, it became more and more common to portray the Mother and Child in a very regal setting, crowned and seated on a throne. One can find examples of an emotional interplay between Mary and Jesus in the first thousand years or so of Christian art, but generally speaking these were exceptions rather than the rule. With the arrival of the Renaissance, and its focus on portraying realism and linear perspective, artists began to try to make their images of the Madonna and Child more realistic and accessible, while still retaining some element of the Divine; some succeeded better than others.
While he was a part of this movement, what Raphael did in his own work was to bring three key characteristics together, to create something that had a profound impact on the viewers of his day, as well as on other artists right down to the present. He recognized, first of all, that the more beautiful the figures he portrayed in his picture, the more the viewer could reflect on the beauty of God’s creation: Mary, the young woman chosen by God to bring the Messiah into the world, and Jesus, God Himself made flesh. Raphael not only knew that people like to look at beautiful things more than they like to look at ugly things, naturally enough, but also that beauty is a reflection of Divine Perfection.
Raphael also understood that portraying an emotional connection between Mary and her Son, rather than an unapproachable, regal formality, would be more likely to evoke the sympathy of the viewer. If the beauty of the figures drew in the eye, the realistic interaction between them made the eye linger. In seeing the relationship between the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child as analogous to that between his own mother and himself, the viewer would not only be able to relate more closely to the individuals the picture portrays, but more broadly to reflect on the love God has for mankind.
Finally, Raphael’s technique became better and better as he painted more, meaning that his somewhat cartoonish early Madonnas, mimicking the style of his master, Pietro Perugino, were gradually replaced by a careful study of nature that invited the viewer to immerse himself in the painting. The curve of Mary’s neck with a lock of hair trailing down it, or the sun and high clouds of a Tuscan landscape bathing the countryside behind the figures in light, or the interplay between Jesus’ baby fingers with the folds of a piece of cloth, were aspects Raphael could use to keep the viewer lost in thought, and hopefully in prayer.
In the “Sistine Madonna”, Raphael quite literally pulls back the veil of Heaven, to reveal a vision of the Madonna and Child walking across celestial clouds, flanked by Pope St. Sixtus and St. Barbara, and with the aforementioned two little angels at the bottom. Both Mary and Jesus are shown as very beautiful figures, which pleases our eyes, but we soon become caught up in how the two cling to one another, as we have so often seen mothers and children do. Here however, the symbolic importance of this emotional reaction on the part of both Mother and Child comes from what is not shown in the picture: the crucifix above the high altar that the figure of Pope Saint Sixtus is pointing to, which would have been opposite the painting in its original setting at the monastic church.
The Madonna and Child in this picture are very simply portrayed, with no crowns, thrones, or jewels. Yet the celestial surroundings make this more than just an image of motherhood: they make us reflect on how a humble Jewish girl from Nazareth and her Divine Son went on to change the world. Christ does so by promising forgiveness and redemption through His Passion, Death, and Resurrection; Mary by setting the example for all Christians of the importance of obedience to God’s Will, no matter what.
This was the last image of the Madonna and Child which Raphael painted in his long career of thinking about this subject, and also the last painting which he himself fully finished. At the time of his death a few years after completing this painting, he was working on an altarpiece of the Transfiguration now kept in the Vatican, and which Bible story we heard just yesterday in the Gospel reading at mass. That painting was carried at the head of his funeral procession to St. Peter’s Basilica. However from my perspective, given how much it encapsulates Raphael’s unique understanding of the relationship between Christ and His Mother, his artistic talent, and his beautiful vision of Heaven, it might have been more fitting had they borrowed his “Sistine Madonna” from the monks in Piacenza for this purpose.