Raphael only lived to the age of 37, but he was already considered a High Renaissance master and “prince of painters” by the age of 17, going on to live and work in various cities in Italy, being appointed commissioner of antiquities in Rome by Pope Leo X, developing contentious rivalries with da Vinci and Michelangelo, and establishing a record-breaking workshop of over 50 apprentices.
This painting shows the Virgin Mary with child versions of Christ and John the Baptist in an Italian landscape. The facial expressions and body language, conveyed with a fluid and precise naturalism, are both remarkably human and spiritually expressive. The Virgin’s gaze, as her right arm reaches out to touch John comfortingly on the shoulder, is portent with awareness of future events. He returns her look with understanding while his left hand grips the base of the wooden cross. The Christ Child reaches out to hold the cross, as he too gazes intently at John. The faces of the three figures become one cohesive glance of spiritual knowledge as visually a subtle diagonal is created from John at the left up to Jesus and the pinnacle of the pyramid at Mary’s head. The idealized landscape creates a sense of serenity with its lake, green hills with several buildings, and a mountain range in the distance against a calm blue sky, where a drift of clouds, rising above Jesus’s head are both naturalistic and allusive to the holy spirit.
This was one of Raphael’s major works in the period following his move to Rome in 1508 to work under the Pope Julius II. It is a prime example of his depiction of the “Madonna of Humility,” used often by both he and his artistic peers of the time, to represent an non-idealized vision of Mary as a woman/mother distinctly connected to everyday humankind. The use of the tondo, or round painting, further draws viewers in to the unified and intimate scene to provoke a feeling of profound relation.
Raphael’s color palette was also innovative, employing delicate shades of pink, blue, and green, to create a delicate mood. As the legendary art historian Ernst Gombrich wrote, “if we compare it with the countless representations of the same theme which preceded it, we feel that they have all been groping for the very simplicity that Raphael has attained.”
Oil on panel transferred to canvas – The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC