We The Italians | Italian art: Raphael's Madonnas

Italian art: Raphael's Madonnas

Italian art: Raphael's Madonnas

  • WTI Magazine #159 Jan 21, 2023
  • 253

Raphael Sanzio, the son of the painter Giovanni di Sante di Pietro, can be considered an enfant prodige given that already at the age of seventeen he is referred to as a "magister" in the contract submitted to him for the creation of the altarpiece for the Baronci Chapel in the church of Sant'Agostino in Città di Castello, Umbria. Beginning in 1505 and 1506, in Florence, Tuscany, Raphael was to make a series of Madonnas, all characterized by being seated immersed in nature, flanked by the figures of St. John and the Infant Jesus.

The first one we are going to mention is the Madonna of the Goldfinch (La Madonna del cardellino) in which emerges the absolute dependence on Leonardo's style given by the softness of the drawing-always mixed with the hardness of Umbrian drawing-and the pyramidal setting of the composition. The work was commissioned for the wedding of Lorenzo Nasi and Sandra di Matteo di Giovanni Canigiani.

Unfortunately, thirty years after the work was delivered, due to the collapse of the ceiling of the Nasi house, the work was destroyed in seventeen pieces, so much so that today's painting is the result of successive restoration works (first an ancient one and the last in 2008).

This first experiment in the new iconography adopted was followed by the Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del prato) in the Kunstistoriches Museum in Vienna. The dating of this painting is made possible by the date 1506 affixed to the neckline of the Virgin's dress. The landscape here is characterized by punctilious decoration typical of the Flemish tradition, becoming at once distant and evanescent.

A third Virgin is made in the so-called Beautiful Gardener (La bella giardiniera), now in the Louvre in Paris, France, which is dated to 1508 but may have been begun earlier. Indeed, a peculiarity of Raphael is certainly that he takes a very long time to finish works, even if they are modest in size.

In his case, therefore, the date affixed to a work is not meant to signify its completion and that it was conceived and executed in the same year. In this work the criterion for the construction of the image remains unchanged, apart from a slight enlargement of the characters and the presence of a less obtrusive landscape than in his previous works. In this work Raphael achieves great intensity: St. John is kneeling before the Child Jesus and in the process is leaning on the astylar cross in his right hand. Expressiveness dominates: Saint John looks at Jesus and Jesus looks up at his Mother, as if to explain what is happening.

The last work to be described here is the Canigiani Holy Family (Sacra Famiglia Canigiani), dated 1507 and now in the Alte Pinanothek in Munich, Germany. Certainly, this is a work whose artistic level appears to be magnified enormously, and which allows the consideration of Raphael as an unparalleled painter to be conferred and accentuated. This painting is believed to be related to the marriage of Domenico Canigiani and Lucrezia Frescobaldi, officiated in July 1507. This work adds to the three figures we have been accustomed to seeing in previous works - always following the chosen pyramidal model - the figure of St. Joseph and that of Elizabeth. The two children are caught talking to each other and while the infant Jesus is showing St. John a scroll. The landscape in the background is depicted according to the chrisms of perspective and the study of light.

The iconography of the Madonna, therefore, will characterize much of Raphael’s painting experience. At every stage of his life he would depict this theme associated with other figures of saints or holy men, never repeating himself and always changing some element of the composition so as not to make redundant copies.