The Many Faces of Raphael’s Madonna

From the Lecture Series: Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance

By William KlossIndependent Art Historian

Raphael’s depictions of the Madonna have inspired countless imitations, both honorable and meretricious. Here, we’ll take a look at a few of his more famous works, and discuss the characteristics that make each one unique.

Madonna Sixtina
Sistine Madonna by Raphael (Image: Raphael/Public domain)

Raphael’s Madonna of the Grand Duke

The Madonna del Granduca (Madonna of the Grand Duke), was painted from approximately 1504–1505. It is a somber, half-length figure in a strikingly tall format.

Raphael's Madonna del Granduca
Madonna del Granduca, by Raphael
(click to enlarge)
(Image: Raphael/Public domain)

The traditional red tunic and blue cloak of Mary are rendered with such purity and harmony that they sing. Mary is often painted in these colors, which are symbolic attributes of her status as the Virgin. The blue signifies that she is Queen of Heaven and the red signifies the sacrificial blood of Christ; she is a bridge between the divine and humanity.

Learn more about Madonnas and portraits

Raphael emphasizes her humility in this painting in her downcast eyes, which are striking in that oval face. It seems appropriate when we meet the gaze of the child that he is at once softly human and solemnly “other,” more than human.

Almost all images of the Christ child in Italian Renaissance art “predict” his sacrifice in some way. Here, it is the black background that hints of the “darkness over the whole land” at the Crucifixion. The name by which the painting is known refers to the Grand Dukes of Tuscany who ruled Florence in the mid-16th century. This picture came into the Grand Ducal collection at the end of the 18th century.

The Symbolism of the Madonna of the Goldfinch

Madonna of the Goldfinch, by Raphael
Madonna of the Goldfinch, by Raphael (click to enlarge)
(Image: Raphael /Public domain)

Another famous example of the Madonna is the Madonna of the Goldfinch, probably painted c. 1505, now in Florence in the Uffizi. The Madonna of the Goldfinch (oil on panel) consists of a full-length group of figures in a landscape: the Madonna, who is perhaps seated on a rock, the child Jesus in front of her, and the child John the Baptist to the left.

The goldfinch of the title, which Jesus offers to John, is a symbol of the human soul that flies away at death. There is a great deal of symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance paintings. The goldfinch was said to have received its red spot from a drop of blood from the thorn-crowned head of Christ.

When the crown of thorns was placed on Christ’s head, the bird came flying by, took a thorn, and a drop of blood fell on its head, hence the legend of its connection with the Christ child.

The group is placed in the foreground of a soft landscape and composed in a pyramid. This type of composition owes most of its design to Leonardo da Vinci.

Learn more about Raphael’s history paintings

This is a transcript from the video series Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Shape of Alba Madonna 

Alba Madonna, by Raphael
Alba Madonna, by Raphael (click to enlarge) (Image: Raphael /Public domain)

The Alba Madonna was painted in approximately 1510 and is named for the Spanish family that owned it for generations. It’s one of the most admired of Raphael’s Madonnas and all tondo compositions.

A tondo, or circular painting or sculpture, is an ideal form closely associated with Renaissance art. The symbolic potential of the circular shape is its seamless perfection, which can be seen as a reminder of God. He is both center and circumference of the universe, at the center of everything and surrounding everything. God is everywhere in this concept.

The Madonna is seated on the ground, and together with the Christ child and the child John the Baptist, they are built into a composition of subtle complexity. Her foreleg, her upper arm, and the alignment of their heads establish a rhomboid shape that is set into the circular field, anchored in place by the beautiful modulated horizon line of the landscape behind.

The soft blue haze of the distant hills also creates an atmospheric perspective and it convinces the viewer of the depth of the space behind the Madonna.

This takes some convincing because there’s no middle ground. The viewer goes from the dominant foreground group to the hills without much between; it relies on that sense of the atmospheric distance to convince us we have traversed it visually. Mary’s turbaned head is unusual, and her eyes are fixed on the reed cross that John the Baptist and the child Jesus hold between them. Her head suggests that of a Sibyl—like those that Michelangelo painted in the Sistine Chapel—a prophetess who foresees the Crucifixion.

Learn more about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel ceiling

Moreover, the pose of the Christ child is reminiscent of the resurrected Christ, who holds a banner. It’s not an accident. His half-standing pose is meant to look forward to the end, to the Resurrection.

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna 

Sistine Madonna, by Raphael
Sistine Madonna, by Raphael
(click to enlarge)
(Image: Raphael /Public domain)

The Sistine Madonna, probably painted in 1513, is different from all other Raphael Madonnas. It’s majestic; the standing figure is the apex of a triangular group of figures, including St. Barbara on the right, in the beautiful colors of gold, blue, and green; and St. Sixtus on the left, with a red-lined cloak.

They’re presented in a coup de theatre apparition revealed by drawn curtains; a curtain rod at the top completes the illusion, as though the curtain is being drawn back to reveal this vision. The cloud-filled space they inhabit is meant to be infinite, indicated beautifully by the irresistible little angels at the bottom, who lean their arms on the lower edge of this opening “like children in a swimming bath,” as an English writer once put it. They’re charming; it is Raphael’s graceful skill that keeps the charm just this side of saccharine.

The painting was probably commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Church of St. Sixtus in the city of Piacenza. St. Sixtus was a much-revered early Christian pope and martyr, as well as the patron saint of the della Rovere family. In the painting, St. Sixtus has the features of Julius II, to honor the patron who commissioned the work. Pope Julius died in 1513 before this painting could be installed at Piacenza. While he likely never saw it in its place, he may have seen it completed.

Raphael, famous for his unique style, brought complexity and depth to these Christian figures. The characteristics of color, symbolism, and use of proximity and depth, have made his powerful depictions of the Madonna and Christ child worthy of celebration and inspired many imitators.

Common Questions About Raphael’s Madonna

Q: Who is the Madonna in Raphael’s paintings?

The Madonna in Raphael’s paintings is the Virgin Mary appearing with an infant Jesus.

Q: What symbolism does the Madonna represent?

The Madonna and the colors she bears are a symbol of virtue, virginity, innocence and purity of spirit.

Q: What is Raphael most famous for?

Raphael is most famous for his unique style in the paintings of the Madonna, particularly for the Sistene Madonna for the Palace of the Vatican.

Q: Was Raphael involved in the painting of the Sistene Chapel?

Raphael did not paint the ceiling with Michaelangelo in the Sistene Chapel, but he was commissioned to do tapestries for the Chapel.

This article was updated on September 18, 2019

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