Lessons from a Stinky St. John the Baptist

It was interesting to read this morning that the exhibition in Milan of a very large, important painting by the High Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) known as the “Madonna of Foligno”, has attracted almost a quarter of a million viewers in the roughly six weeks it has been on loan.  I have always thought of this altarpiece as being a rather swarthy picture, particularly in its imagining of the figure of St. John the Baptist.  Yet thinking about this painting gives us a good opportunity to see how and why an artist’s work can dramatically change as they mature, and also gives us non-artists the opportunity to reflect on how we ought to be doing the same in our own lives.

Ansidei Madonna by Raphael (c. 1505-1507) National Gallery, London

“Ansidei Madonna” by Raphael (c. 1505-1507)
National Gallery, London

Raphael’s peaceful, meditative “Ansidei Madonna” of c. 1505-1507 for example, is quite different in feeling from the “Madonna of Foligno”, even though St. John the Baptist appears in both. The “Ansidei Madonna” is a colorful and genteel picture which, like many of the images from Raphael’s time in Florence, had a tremendous impact on mass-produced Catholic devotional images in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  We can look at this picture and admire its architectural perfection, the loveliness of the figures, and the stillness of the composition.  However, while Raphael’s work in Florence at this period has a sense of hushed meditation about it, this style was not to last.

Raphael moved to Rome about a year after finishing the “Ansidei Madonna”, and when he arrived he was quickly inundated with more artistic commissions than he could handle.  From executing famous frescoes like “The School of Athens” in what was then the Papal Library, to designing the magnificent tapestries with scenes from the lives of Sts. Peter and Paul for the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was an extremely busy man.  Yet despite the overwhelming amount of work he took on, he did not stay stagnant as an artist.  Rather, he found the time to study, to think, and to grow artistically and intellectually, so that as he grew older, his style lost that porcelain, idealized quality he started out with, to become something still beautiful, but far more realistic.

The figures in the “Madonna of Foligno” bear some relation to those of the “Ansidei Madonna”, in that we can see they came from the same artistic mind, but the differences are very striking.  In the scant few years since Raphael left Florence, he has been exposed to the work of more diverse artists, and is living in an ancient, rough-and-tumble, sprawling city, the center of the Christian world in the West.  Raphael begins to see that there is another side to life, just as worthy of representation as the courtly images he was famous for.  As he grows, Raphael begins to become interested in “real people”, i.e. the poor, the downtrodden, the working class, the not-so-pretty.

Compare the figures of St. John the Baptist in the “Ansidei Madonna” and the “Madonna of Foligno”, for example, and you can see how Raphael’s world expanded when he moved to Rome.  In the earlier painting, although he is dressed in camel skin and has facial hair, St. John does not appear to have just come in from the Jordan River, having munched on some bugs covered in honey for breakfast, but rather from having taken a nice, hot bath and enjoyed a good lunch. He is built like an idealized athlete from ancient Greece, and could just as easily be the figure of Apollo but for the setting and his accouterments.  The saint is draped in a glorious, expensive red satin cloak, symbolizing his martyrdom, and holds a delicate gold and silver staff in the form of a cross.

"Madonna of Foligno" by Raphael (1511) The Vatican Museums

“Madonna of Foligno” by Raphael (1511)
The Vatican Museums

Now, compare this image to the figure of St. John the Baptist in the later painting.  Here St. John looks like he positively stinks from not having had a bath in quite awhile: his skin is dirty, tanned, and leathery.  His hair and beard are matted and unkempt; he is muscular, but not in a male model sort of way.  Rather, he has the sinewy arm of someone who is used to doing rough work with his hands.  He looks drawn, tired, and pinched – in short, a believable ascetic, who suffers for his faith.

Like in the earlier painting, St. John is depicted wearing his iconic camel hair and having the red robe of the martyr.  Yet whereas in the Florentine image the red drapery is luxurious and more important, here the rough and dirty animal skin is the more prominent article of clothing, with a rugged red martyr’s robe only suggested by a bit of fabric appearing over St. John’s left shoulder and jutting out behind him.  And unlike the jewel-like cross in the earlier picture, in this altarpiece St. John’s staff is a very rough, wooden pole, with a crossbeam affixed toward the top by some rope wrapped around it.

Truly, it is hard to believe that these two figures representing the same historical person could come from the same imagination, painted only four to five years apart.

Keep in mind, of course, Raphael is not trying to represent actual scenes from the Life of Christ in these pictures, but rather the concept of “sacra conversazione”, which you can learn more about here.  Because of that fact, there is always going to be idealization in such compositions.  Yet notice how remarkably less idealized, how much more believable, is the St. John the Baptist in the later picture.  The earlier picture is arguably the more beautiful of the two, but the later picture brings us into this “sacred conversation” in a very different way.  For in it, with all its swarthiness and grime, we can more clearly see ourselves as we are, in all of our human imperfections.

Thus I think the lesson here in comparing these two works is not simply an artistic or academic one.  Raphael’s art evolved the more he saw and experienced, even while remaining tied in to where he had come from as an artist.  So too, we should be open to change as we go along through this life: not losing sight of who and what we are, but at the same time gaining greater nuance and insight into our relationships with God and with our neighbor as we mature.

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