The Triumph of the City


The High Renaissance




(Renaissance  Art Map)


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Raphael and Michelangelo

The most active artist of the early years of the 16th century was the passionate Bramante. According to Vasari, it was he who brought Raphael, a pupil of Pietro Perugino (c. 1445-1523), to Rome. However, it was to Michelangelo that Julius II gave the commission for his monumental tomb to be placed in the old St Peter's. Only the Moses group and the extraordinary Slaves series remain, but even these give the impression of form dramatically escaping from the material, a successful achievement of the ambitious aspirations of the artist. The pope seemed to want to give equal opportunities to the two great rivals, assigning Raphael to the decoration of the three stanze ("rooms") in the papal apartments and Michelangelo to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Burckhardt felt that Raphael's paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura were the harmonious manifestation of philosophical truth (as seen in his School of Athens), theological truth (Disputation over the Holy Sacrament) and poetic truth (Parnassus); to his mind, these paintings embraced the course of history from ancient to modern times, using compositional and chromatic values governed by simple, straightforward rules: order, measure, and a delicate, gentle style.
Michelangelo was pursuing other aims in his representation of biblical figures and stories on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He used what Vasari described as "new inventions and novel attitudes", "fresh ways of expression'', and "perfect foreshortenings" to express the dramatic story of the effect of freedom on man, as he treads the path of history laid down by God. Michelangelo's complex style of composition and unique method of depicting volume - related to contemporary sculptural experiments in representing the human body - were supported by choices of colour and light of surprising clarity and decisive contrast. Vasari claimed that Bramante secretly took Raphael to look at the Sistine Chapel, radically changing the latter's way of painting. When the ceiling was finally revealed in October 1512 - after four and half years of intense creativity - to the amazement of all who witnessed the event, it contained many elements of Florentine Mannerism, as epitomized by the work of artists such as Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530) and Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556).


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Sistine Chapel

papal chapel in the Vatican Palace that was erected in 1473–81 by the architect Giovanni dei Dolci for Pope Sixtus IV (hence its name). It is famous for its Renaissance frescoes by Michelangelo.

The Sistine Chapel is a rectangular brick building with six arched windows on each of the two main (or side) walls and a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The chapel's exterior is drab and unadorned, but its interior walls and ceiling are decorated with frescoes by many Florentine Renaissance masters. The frescoes on the side walls of the chapel were painted from 1481 to 1483. On the north wall are six frescoes depicting events from the life of Christ as painted by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandajo, and Cosimo Rosselli. On the south wall are six other frescoes depicting events from the life of Moses by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Botticelli, Domenico and Benedetto Ghirlandajo, Rosselli, Luca Signorelli, and Bartolomeo della Gatta. Above these works, smaller frescoes between the windows depict various popes. For great ceremonial occasions the lowest portions of the side walls were covered with a series of tapestries depicting events from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. These were designed by Raphael and woven in 1515–19 at Brussels.

The most important artworks in the chapel are the frescoes by Michelangelo on the ceiling and on the west wall behind the altar. The frescoes on the ceiling, collectively known as the Sistine Ceiling, were commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1508 and were painted by Michelangelo in the years from 1508 to 1512. They depict incidents and personages from the Old Testament. The “Last Judgment” fresco on the west wall was painted by Michelangelo for Pope Paul III in the period from 1534 to 1541. These two gigantic frescoes are among the greatest achievements of Western painting. A 10-year-long cleaning and restoration of the Sistine Ceiling completed in 1989 removed several centuries' accumulation of dirt, smoke, and varnish. Cleaning and restoration of the “Last Judgment” was completed in 1994.

As the pope's own chapel, the Sistine Chapel is the site of the principal papal ceremonies and is used by the Sacred College of Cardinals for their election of a new pope when there is a vacancy.



Encyclopaedia Britannica

born April 6, 1483, Urbino, Duchy of Urbino [Italy]
died April 6, 1520, Rome, Papal States [Italy]

Italian in full Raffaello Sanzio master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance. Raphael is best known for his Madonnas and for his large figure compositions in the Vatican in Rome. His work is admired for its clarity of form and ease of composition and for its visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur.

Early years at Urbino.

Raphael was the son of Giovanni Santi and Magia di Battista Ciarla; his mother died in 1491. His father was, according to the 16th-century artist and biographer Giorgio Vasari, a painter “of no great merit.” He was, however, a manof culture who was in constant contact with the advanced artistic ideas current at the court of Urbino. He gave his son his first instruction in painting, and, before his death in 1494, when Raphael was 11, he had introduced the boy to humanistic philosophy at the court.

Urbino had become a centre of culture during the rule of Duke Federico da Montefeltro, who encouraged the arts and attracted the visits of men of outstanding talent, including Donato Bramante, Piero della Francesca, and Leon Battista Alberti, to his court. Although Raphael would be influenced by major artists in Florence and Rome, Urbino constituted the basis for all his subsequent learning. Furthermore, the cultural vitality of the city probably stimulated the exceptional precociousness of the young artist, who, even at the beginning of the 16th century, when he was scarcely 17 years old, already displayed an extraordinary talent.

Apprenticeship at Perugia.

The date of Raphael's arrival in Perugia is not known, but several scholars place it in 1495. The first record of Raphael's activity as a painter is found there in a document of Dec. 10, 1500, declaring that the young painter, by then called a “master,” was commissioned to help paint an altarpiece to be completed by Sept. 13, 1502. It is clear from this that Raphael had already given proof of his mastery, somuch so that between 1501 and 1503 he received a rather important commission—to paint the “Coronation of the Virgin” for the Oddi Chapel in the church of San Francesco, Perugia (and now in the Vatican Museum, Rome). The great Umbrian master Pietro Perugino was executing the frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio at Perugia between 1498 and 1500, enabling Raphael, as a member of his workshop, to acquire extensive professional knowledge.

In addition to this practical instruction, Perugino's calmly exquisite style also influenced Raphael. The “Giving of the Keys to St. Peter,” painted in 1481–82 by Perugino for the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican Palace in Rome, inspired Raphael's first major work, “The Marriage of the Virgin” (1504; Brera Gallery, Milan). Perugino's influence is seen in the emphasis on perspectives, in the graded relationships between the figures and the architecture, and in the lyrical sweetness of the figures. Nevertheless, even in this early painting, it is clear that Raphael's sensibility was different from his teacher's. The disposition of the figures is less rigidly related to the architecture, and the disposition of each figure in relation to the others is more informal and animated. The sweetness of the figures and the gentle relation between them surpasses anything in Perugino's work.

Three small paintings done by Raphael shortly after “The Marriage of the Virgin”—“Vision of a Knight,” “Three Graces,” and “St. Michael”—are masterful examples of narrative painting, showing, as well as youthful freshness, a maturing ability to control the elements of his own style. Although he had learned much from Perugino, Raphael by late 1504 needed other models to work from; it is clear that his desire for knowledge was driving him to look beyond Perugia.

Move to Florence.

Vasari vaguely recounts that Raphael followed the Perugian painter Bernardino Pinturicchio to Siena and then went on to Florence, drawn there by accounts of the work that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were undertaking in that city. By the autumn of 1504 Raphael had certainly arrived in Florence. It is not known if this was his first visit to Florence, but, as his works attest, it was about 1504 that he first came into substantial contact with this artistic civilization, which reinforced all the ideas he had already acquired and also opened to him new and broader horizons. Vasari records that he studied not only the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Fra Bartolomeo, who were the masters of the High Renaissance, but also “the old things of Masaccio,” a pioneer of the naturalism that marked the departure of the early Renaissance from the Gothic.

Still, his principal teachers in Florence were Leonardo and Michelangelo. Many of the works that Raphael executed in the years between 1505 and 1507, most notably a great series of Madonnas including “The Madonna of the Goldfinch” (c. 1505; Uffizi Gallery, Florence), the “Madonna del Prato” (c. 1505; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), the “Esterházy Madonna” (c. 1505–07; Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest), and “La Belle Jardinière” (c. 1507; Louvre Museum, Paris), are marked by the influence of Leonardo, who since 1480 had been making great innovations in painting. Raphael was particularly influenced by Leonardo's“Madonna and Child with St. Anne” pictures, which are marked by an intimacy and simplicity of setting uncommon in 15th-century art. Raphael learned the Florentine method of building up his composition in depth with pyramidal figure masses; the figures are grouped as a single unit, but each retains its own individuality and shape. A new unity of composition and suppression of inessentials distinguishes the works he painted in Florence. Raphael also owed much to Leonardo's lighting techniques; he made moderate use of Leonardo's chiaroscuro (i.e., strong contrast between light and dark), and he was especially influenced by his sfumato (i.e., use of extremely fine, soft shading instead of line to delineate forms and features). Raphael went beyond Leonardo, however, in creating new figure types whose round, gentle faces reveal uncomplicated and typically human sentiments but raised to a sublime perfection and serenity.

In 1507 Raphael was commissioned to paint the “Deposition of Christ” that is now in the Borghese Gallery in Rome. In this work, it is obvious that Raphael set himself deliberately to learn from Michelangelo the expressive possibilities of human anatomy. But Raphael differed from Leonardo and Michelangelo, who were both painters of dark intensity and excitement, in that he wished to develop a calmer and more extroverted style that would serve as a popular, universally accessible form of visual communication.

Last years in Rome.

Raphael was called to Rome toward the end of 1508 by Pope Julius II at the suggestion of the architect Donato Bramante. At this time Raphael was little known in Rome, but the young man soon made a deep impression on the volatile Julius and the papal court, and his authority as a master grew day by day. Raphael was endowed with a handsome appearance and great personal charm in addition to his prodigious artistic talents, and he eventually became so popular that he was called “the prince of painters.”

Raphael spent the last 12 years of his short life in Rome. They were years of feverish activity and successive masterpieces. His first task in the city was to paint a cycle of frescoes in a suite of medium-sized rooms in the Vatican papal apartments in which Julius himself lived and worked; these rooms are known simply as the Stanze. The Stanza della Segnatura (1508–11) and Stanza d'Eliodoro (1512–14) were decorated practically entirely by Raphael himself; themurals in the Stanza dell'Incendio (1514–17), though designed by Raphael, were largely executed by his numerous assistants and pupils.

The decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura was perhaps Raphael's greatest work. Julius II was a highly cultured man who surrounded himself with the most illustrious personalities of the Renaissance. He entrusted Bramante with the construction of a new basilica of St. Peter to replace the original 4th-century church; he called upon Michelangeloto execute his tomb and compelled him against his will to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; and, sensing the genius of Raphael, he committed into his hands the interpretation of the philosophical scheme of the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. This theme was the historical justification of the power of the Roman Catholic church through Neoplatonic philosophy.

The four main fresco walls in the Stanza della Segnatura are occupied by the “Disputa” and the “School of Athens” on the larger walls and the “Parnassus” and “Cardinal Virtues” on the smaller walls. The two most important of these frescoes are the “Disputa” and the “School of Athens.” The “Disputa,” showing a celestial vision of God and his prophets and apostles above a gathering of representatives, past and present, of the Roman Catholic church, equates through its iconography the triumph of the church and the triumph of truth. The “School of Athens” is a complex allegory of secular knowledge, or philosophy, showing Plato and Aristotle surrounded by philosophers, past and present, in a splendid architectural setting; it illustrates the historical continuity of Platonic thought. The “School of Athens” is perhaps the most famous of all Raphael's frescoes, and one of the culminating artworks of the High Renaissance. Here Raphael fills an ordered and stable space with figures in a rich variety of poses and gestures, which he controls in order to make one group of figures lead to the next in an interweaving and interlocking pattern, bringing the eye to the central figures of Plato and Aristotle at the converging point of the perspectival space. The space in which the philosophers congregate is defined by the pilasters and barrel vaults of a great basilica that is based on Bramante's design for the new St. Peter's in Rome. The general effect of the fresco is one of majestic calm, clarity, and equilibrium.

About the same time, probably in 1511, Raphael painted a more secular subject, the “Triumph of Galatea” in the Villa Farnesina in Rome; this work was perhaps the High Renaissance's most successful evocation of the living spirit of classical antiquity. Meanwhile, Raphael's decoration of the papal apartments continued after the death of Julius in 1513 and into the succeeding pontificate of Leo X until 1517. In contrast to the generalized allegories in the Stanza della Segnatura, the decorations in the second room, the Stanza d'Eliodoro, portray specific miraculous events in the history of the Christian church. The four principal subjects are “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple,” “The Miracle at Bolsena,” “The Liberation of St. Peter,” and “Leo I Halting Attila.” These frescoes are deeper and richer in colour than are those in the earlier room, and they display a new boldness on Raphael's part in both their dramatic subjects and their unusual effects of light. “The Liberation of St. Peter,” for example, is a night scene and contains three separate lighting effects—moonlight, the torch carried by a soldier, and the supernatural light emanating from an angel. Raphael delegated his assistants to decorate the third room, the Stanze dell'Incendio, with the exception of one fresco, the “Fire in the Borgo,” in which his pursuit of more dramatic pictorial incidents and his continuing study of the male nude are plainly apparent.

The Madonnas that Raphael painted in Rome show him turning away from the serenity and gentleness of his earlier works in order to emphasize qualities of energetic movement and grandeur. His “Alba Madonna” (1508; National Gallery, Washington, D.C.) epitomizes the serene sweetness of the Florentine Madonnas but shows a new maturity of emotional expression and supreme technical sophistication in the poses of the figures. It was followed by the “Madonna di Foligno” (1510; Vatican Museum) and the “Sistine Madonna” (1513; Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), which show both the richness of colour and new boldness in compositional invention typical of Raphael's Roman period. Some of his other late Madonnas, such as the “Madonna of Francis I” (Louvre), are remarkable for their polished elegance. Besides his other accomplishments, Raphael became the most important portraitist in Rome during the first two decades of the 16th century. He introduced new types of presentation and new psychological situations for his sitters, as seen in the portrait of “Leo X with Two Cardinals” (1517–19; Pitti Palace, Florence). Raphael's finest work in the genre is perhaps the “Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione” (1516; Louvre), a brilliant and arresting character study.

Leo X commissioned Raphael to design 10 large tapestries to hang on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Seven of the ten cartoons (full-size preparatory drawings) were completed by1516, and the tapestries woven after them were hung in place in the chapel by 1519. The tapestries themselves are still in the Vatican, while seven of Raphael's original cartoons are in the British royal collection and are on view atthe Victoria and Albert Museum in London. These cartoons represent “Christ's Charge to Peter,” “The Miraculous Draught of Fishes,” “The Death of Ananias,” “The Healing of the Lame Man,” “The Blinding of Elymas,” “The Sacrifice at Lystra,” and “St. Paul Preaching at Athens.” In these pictures Raphael created prototypes that would influence the European tradition of narrative history painting for centuriesto come. The cartoons display Raphael's keen sense of drama, his use of gestures and facial expressions to portray emotion, and his incorporation of credible physical settings from both the natural world and that of ancient Roman architecture.


The School of Athens

Raphael's fresco contains portraits of many classical philosophers.
In the center stand Plato and Aristotle, the two great philosophers of antiquity. To their left Socrates is seen in argument with several young men. The old man seated on the steps is Diogenes. Other philosophical figures are identifiable, including Pythagoras, shown bottom left, explaining his proportion system on a slate, and, on the extreme right, Ptolemy, depicted contemplating a celestial globe.


Plato and Aristotle







Ptolemy and Zoroaster

Raphael and Sodoma


While he was at work in the Stanza della Segnatura, Raphael also did his first architectural work, designing the church of Sant' Eligio degli Orefici. In 1513 the banker Agostino Chigi, whose Villa Farnesina Raphael had already decorated, commissioned him to design and decorate his funerary chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. In 1514 Leo X chose him to work on the basilica of St. Peter's alongside Bramante; and when Bramante died later that year, Raphael assumed the direction of the work, transforming the plans of the church from a Greek, or radial, to a Latin, or longitudinal, design.

Raphael was also a keen student of archaeology and of ancient Greco-Roman sculpture, echoes of which are apparent in his paintings of the human figure during the Roman period. In 1515 Leo X put him in charge of the supervision of the preservation of marbles bearing valuable Latin inscriptions; two years later he was appointed commissioner of antiquities for the city, and he drew up an archaeological map of Rome. Raphael had by this time been put in charge of virtually all of the papacy's various artistic projects in Rome, involving architecture, paintings and decoration, and the preservation of antiquities.

Raphael's last masterpiece is the “Transfiguration” (commissioned in 1517), an enormous altarpiece that was unfinished at his death and completed by his assistant Giulio Romano. It now hangs in the Vatican Museum. “The Transfiguration” is a complex work that combines extreme formal polish and elegance of execution with an atmosphere of tension and violence communicated by the agitated gestures of closely crowded groups of figures. It shows a new sensibility that is like the prevision of a new world, turbulent and dynamic; in its feeling and composition it inaugurated the Mannerist movement and tends toward an expression that may even be called Baroque.

Raphael died on his 37th birthday. His funeral mass was celebrated at the Vatican, his “Transfiguration” was placed at the head of the bier, and his body was buried in the Pantheon in Rome.


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Raphael, School of Athens,
Stanza delta Segnatura, Vatican City, 1509-10.
The new frescos for the Vatican apartments replaced older ones
by Andrea del Castagno and Piero delta Francesca


Raphael's decoration of the Vatican apartments for Pope Julius II began with the Stanza della Segnatura. In a cycle about the human intellect that asserts the ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty, the artist included his School of Athens, with its theme of philosophy, and Disputation over the Holy Sacrament, with its theme of theology. The former is a summary of the history of philosophical thought. It centres on the figures of Aristotle and Plato, who are depicted in the centre of a large building reminiscent of both classical basilicas and the new St Peter's. Raphael tried to achieve complete balance in the composition, the variety of figures shown forming a representation of the ideal relationship between the different philosophical beliefs. In the later, and more dramatic, Stanza d'Eliodoro, painted between 1511 and 1514, the theme is divine intervention on behalf of the Church. In this work, Raphael showed quite different influences. There are, for instance, hints of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in the weight and build of the figures, while touches of Venetian art, especially that of Sebastiano del Piombo, are also evident. These more dynamic works depend on a stronger use of light and colour, typified by the drama of the Expulsion of Hehodorus.

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Influences on Raphael

After the complexities of Leonardo and Michelangelo, it is a relief to find Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio, 1483-1520), a genius no less than they, but one whose daily ways were those of other men. He was born in the small town of Urbino, an artistic center, and received his earliest training from his father. Later, his father sent him to Pietro Perugino (active 1478-1523) who, like Verrocchio and Ghirlandaio, was an artist of considerable gifts. But while Leonardo and Michelangelo quickly outgrew their teachers and show no later trace of influence, Raphael had a precocious talent right from the beginning and was an innate absorber of influences. Whatever he saw, he took possession of, always growing by what was taught to him. An early Raphael can look very like a Perugino. In fact, Perugino's Crucifixion with the Virgin, St. John, St. Jerome, and St. Mary Magdalene was thought to be by Raphael until evidence proved it was given to the church of San Gimigniano in 1497, when Raphael was only 14. It is undoubtedly a Perugino, calmly emotional, and pious rather than passionate. A fascinating context for this scene of quiet faith is the notorious unbelief on the part of the artist, who was described by Yasari as an atheist. He painted what would be acceptable, not what he felt to be true, and this may account for the lack of real emotive impact.

Early Raphael

There are still echoes of the gentle Perugino in an early Raphael like the diminutive St. George and the Dragon, painted when he was in his early twenties; the little praying princess is very Peruginesque. But there is a fire in the knight and his intelligent horse, and a nasty vigor in the convincing dragon that would always be beyond Perugino's skill. Even the horse's tail is electric, and the saint's mantle flies wide as he speeds to the kill.
Raphael spent his first sojourn in Florence (1504-08) to sublime purpose. At that time Leonardo and Michelangelo were both working there, and as a result, Raphael adopted new working methods and techniques -particularly influenced by Leonardo — and his paintings took on a more vigorous graphic energy. We may think we see a hint of what he took from Leonardo in a work like the Small Cowper Madonna, with its softness of contour and perfection of balance. Both faces, the Virgin's almost smiling, almost praying, wholly wrapped up in her Child, and that of the Child, wholly at ease with His Mother, dreamily looking out at us with abstracted sweetness, have that inwardness we see in Leonardo, but made firm and unproblematic. Behind the seated figures we see a tranquil rural landscape with a church perched on a hill.

Raphael's later work

Raphael returned to the subject of the Madonna and Child several times, each time in an intimate, gentle composition. The Alba Madonna, on the other hand, has a Michelangelic heroism about it; tender as always in Raphael, but also heavy; masses wonderfully composed in tondo form; a crescendo of emotion that finds its fulfillment in the watchful face of Mary. The world stretches away on either side, centered on this trinity of figures, and the movement sweeps graciously onward until it reaches the farthest fold of Mary's cloaked elbow. Then it floods back, with her bodily inclination toward the left, and the meaning is perfectly contained: love is never stationary, it is given and returned. Raphael's life was short, but while he lived he was one of those geniuses who continually evolve and develop. He had an extraordinary capacity (like, though greater than, Picasso's) to respond to every movement in the art world, and to subsume it within his own work.
Since Vasari  described the picture commissioned by Bindo Altoviti as "his portrait when young," historians have liked to think that this radiant youth was Raphael himself. He was indeed said to be unusually handsome, pensive, and fair, which is exactly what this portrait shows us. But it is now agreed that it is Bindo when young, and since he was at this time a mere 22 (and Raphael 33, with only five years left to him), this is not an "imagined" youth but a real boy who takes up so self-conscious a stance before the painter.
Raphael is one of the most acute of all portraitists, effortlessly cleaving through the external defenses of his sitter, yet courteously colluding with whatever image the ego would seek to have portrayed. This duality, looking beneath the surface and yet remaining wholly respectful of the surface, gives an additional layer of meaning to all his portraits. We see, and we know things that we do not see; we are helped to encounter rather than to evaluate.
Bindo Altoviti was beautiful, successful (as a banker), and rich- rather like Raphael himself. There may have been some feeling of fellowship in the work, as the noble countenance is sensitively fleshed out for us. Half the face is in shadow, as if to allow the sitter his mystery, his maturing, his private destiny. The lips are full and sensual, balanced by the deep-set eyes with their confrontational stare, almost defiant. The ruffled shirt is half covered by the young man's locks, calculatedly casual, at odds in their dandyish profusion with the plain beret and the rich but simple doublet. He holds a darkened hand dramatically to his breast, maybe to show off the ring, maybe to indicate psychic ease.
But Raphael has not given him the real world for his setting. Bindo Aldoviti stands in a nowhere place of luminous green, outside the scope of time in his eternal youth, fearless because he is protected by art from human uncertainties.
There is an aptness in the areas of darkness in which the great doublet sleeve loses itself. For all his debonaire poise, this is a young man threatened. For the viewer who knows how short Raphael's own life was to be, the thought that this might be a self-portrait is seductively plausible. There is a sense in which every portrait is one of the self, since we never escape our own life enough to see with divine vision what is objectively there: this shows us both men, painter and banker, "when young."
Raphael is out of favor today; his work seems too perfect, too faultless for our slipshod age. Yet these great icons of human beauty can never fail to stir us: his Vatican murals can stand fearlessly beside the Sistine ceiling. The School of Athens, for example, monumentally immortalizing the great philosophers, is unrivaled in its classic grace. Raphael's huge influence on successive artists is all the more impressive considering his short life.

Sister Wendy


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The Alba Madonna

Like Bellini, Raphael became a Madonniere - a painter of Madonnas. Depicted like Bellini's Madonna of the Meadow in an open landscape, The Alba Madonna is an example of the Renaissance "Madonna of Humility" tradition. However, all comparison with Bellini ends here, and it is the influence of Michelangelo that is more evident in The Alba Madonna, not least in its tondo format - derived from Michelangelo's Holy Family (c. 1503), which Raphael saw in Rome.



The Alba Madonna

Christ child

The Alba Madonna is not as representative of Raphael's treatment of the subject as the Small Cowper Madonna, which exhibits all the sensual warmth of human love that exists between a mother and her baby. Here the Christ Child is depicted as a kind of baby crusader -upright and courageous, a child with a man's understanding of the difficulties of human existence. By comparison, the chubby figure of St. John, dressed in a drab lamb's fleece to remind us of his future in the wilderness, appears unsophisticated and truly childlike.




The relatively close tonal range and restrained palette of The Alba Madonna is perfectly suited to her self-contained, gentle heroism. It is wholly unlike the rosy glow and brilliant hues of the Small Cowper Madonna.
The Alba Madonna's whole demeanor, as well as her quietly mournful gaze, expresses dignity, spiritual strength, and solidity. She meditates on a small wooden cross that symbolizes Christ's Crucifixion.



Umbrian countryside

Beyond the statuesque figure of the Madonna, in the open Umbrian landscape, is a small wood filled with odd, tightly foliaged trees. Beyond the wood, still farther into the distance, are tiny horsemen. The activities of the horsemen, too minute to make out, are reduced almost to nothingness by the giantlike form of the Madonna, her remote gaze echoing their physical distance and their essential irrelevance.

Madonna's foot

The military style of the sandal worn by the Madonna emphasizes her warriorlike demeanor. Like her Son, she assumes a heroic stance. The ground on which she sits is sprinkled with small flowers, some in bloom. The petals are painted delicately over the primary layer of green earth. The flowers that St. John has gathered are anemones that grow behind him. Around the picture from where he kneels are a white dandelion, what could be another anemone, a plantain, a violet, and three lilies, not yet in bloom.




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Queen of Angels and Men

The Sistine Madonna and Dostoyevsky



The Sistine Madonna




Angels bend to you in solemn ceremony and
Saints pray where your foot steps: glorious
Queen of Heaven! To you the lyre of the
spheres resounds, which God has strung.
Your spirit gazes, divine to see, through the
veil of your unfading, blooming figure;
you bear a child of sublime omnipotence,
victor over death and liberator of the world.

August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Sonnet to the Sistine Madonna,
c. 1840



The Sistine Madonna

Visiting Dresden, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821—1881) could hardly tear himself away from The Sistine Madonna. He kept returning to the Gemaldegalerie where it hung to spend hours in front of it. Vasari, the Founding Father of art history, said of the artist: "How generous and benevolent Heaven may on occasion show itself to be by showering one man with the infinite riches of its treasures, all the grace and rare gifts otherwise distributed over a long period of time among many individuals, can be clearly seen in the beauty and grace of Raphael." Dostoyevsky may have had similar feelings about the painting and the artist. On his last day in Dresden, he pulled up a chair in front of the painting so that he might be closer to the Madonna's face: "What beauty, innocence and sadness in that heavenly countenance, what humility and suffering in those eyes. Among the ancient Greeks the powers of the divine were expressed in the marvellous Venus de Mile; the Italians, however, brought forth the true Mother of God — the Sistine Madonna." The author of Crime and Punishment (1866) went so far as to claim that, compared to this masterpiece, other representations of the Virgin resemble bakers' wives or other pedestrian, petty-bourgeois women.
A major Italian artist by 1500, Raphael was commissioned at the age of thirty-nine to work on the design of the new St Peter's in Rome. The young architect had already painted The Sistine Madonna for the high altar of San Sisto in Piacenza, where the relics of Pope Sixtus 11 (martyred in 258) had been kept since the ninth century. The Sistine Madonna hung in the church until 1753, when it came into the possession of the Prince Elector, Frederick Augustus II of Saxony. Before Dostoyevsky, German writers, such as August Wilhelm von Schlegel, Heinrich von Kleist and Franz Grillparzer, had been enthralled by the painting. The Sistine Madonna continues to enjoy wide acclaim to this day. In recent times, advertising and commerce have discovered the irresistible appeal of the two bored, mischievous angels on the lower edge of the picture plane. They appear on cups and napkins, letter paper and lampshades. Putti like these are a type of angel, which made their first appearance during the Renaissance. Deriving from the Italian word for "child" or "infant boy", the putto, with his chubby, sensual cheerfulness, is in the tradition of Bros or Cupid, the god of love. In ancient writings and representations, Eros was portrayed as a half-naked boy with wings, while his figure ranged from slim to plump. The child-like appearance of Italian putti is an expression of their innocence. In connection with the Virgin, they represent the immaculate purity of the Queen of angels and men.

K. Reichold, B. Graf


The Sistine Madonna


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