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.

Raphael’s Madonna of the Grand Duke

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

The Madonna del Granduca, the Madonna of the Grand Duke, was painted 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 in almost indescribable variants of those colors, with such purity and harmony that they sing. Those familiar colors of Mary are symbolic attributes, in a sense, of the Virgin. The blue signifies that she’s Queen of Heaven, and the red signifies the sacrificial blood of Christ.

Learn more about Madonnas and portraits

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

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

Raphael’s 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 seated perhaps 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 is offering 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, and in this case 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 put on Jesus’s head, the bird came flying by, took a thorn, and got a drop of blood on its head; hence the legend of its connection with the Christ child.

The group is placed in the foreground of a lovely landscape and composed in a pyramid. This kind of composition—parametal composition—is the sure mark of a High Renaissance painting and owes most of its design to Leonardo da Vinci.

Learn more about Raphael’s history paintings

Despite its popularity, the painting has had a disastrous history. In 1547 it was shattered into 17 pieces in an earthquake and was reassembled, and much of it was repainted. This is worth contemplating because when we visit museums and churches, we seldom stop to think about the damage the paintings have sustained over the centuries, and how much of the original work often has been lost.

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

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, who is both center and circumference of the universe, at the center of everything and surrounding everything. God is everywhere in this concept.

Raphael’s 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 all tondo compositions and of all Raphael Madonnas.

The Madonna is seated on the ground, and together with the Christ child and the child John the Baptist is built into a composition of subtle complexity. Her foreleg, her upper arm, and the alignment of the heads establish a rhomboid shape that is set into the circular field and 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, the feeling of depth through the blooming of the hills, and it convinces the viewer of the depth of the space behind the Madonna.

This takes some convincing, because there’s no middle ground. One goes from the very dominant foreground group to the hills without much between, so it relies on that sense of the atmospheric distance to convince us that we have traversed it visually. Her turbaned head is very 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 (just like those that Michelangelo was then painting 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, and it’s not an accident. His half-standing pose is meant to look forward to the end and, in fact, 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, which was 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 and blue and green; and St. Sixtus on the left, with a redlined cloak.

They’re presented to us in a coup de theatre apparition revealed by drawn curtains; there’s even a curtain rod at the top here, so there’s an illusion, as though the curtain was being drawn back to reveal this vision. The cloud-filled space that they inhabit is meant to be infinite, as 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 very nicely put it. They’re charming, and it is Raphael’s grace that keeps the charm just this side of saccharine. Many of his imitators didn’t manage that.

The painting was probably commissioned by Pope Julius II for the Church of St. Sixtus in the city of Piacenza. That city had reverted “voluntarily” to the Papal States in 1512. Julius II, who as a cardinal had supported the building of the church, celebrated this reclamation of the city. St. Sixtus was a much-revered early Christian pope and martyr, as well as the patron saint of the della Rovere family.

Julius’s uncle, Francesco della Rovere, had taken the name of Pope Sixtus IV. In the painting, St. Sixtus has the features of Julius II, who liked to get his features in as many paintings as possible. Pope Julius died in 1513, before this painting could be installed at Piacenza, so he never saw it in its place, though he may have seen it completed.

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 7/13/2019

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