Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Humble Madonna

The Madonna of the Grand Duke

Rafaello Sanzio called Raphael (1483-1520). Galleria Pallatina, Palazzo Pitti – Florence.

The Madonna with the Chair

Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael. Galleria Pallatina, Palazzo Pitti – Florence. 1512-1513.

The Madonna Tempi

Raffaello Sanzio called Raphael. Alte Pinakothek – Munich. Around 1507.

Mary’s humility and her obedience to the word of God have made her an example that was eagerly taken up by a Catholic Church that underscored humility and obedience to her own rules. Mary had accepted God’s wish to receive a child that would die on the cross by saying at the Annunciation merely, ’I am your humble servant’. This humble obedience stood in direct contrast with the act of Eve, the primeval woman, who had transgressed God’s will by eating from the forbidden fruit of knowledge. Images of the humble Madonna were thus for the Catholic Church the example of the true virtues of mothers and of the obedience of societies.

The real ‘Umiltà’s’ are particular images of a more general class of pictures usually called by the name ‘Mater Amabilis’, or amiable Madonnas. The Umiltà’s show Mary sitting on the ground. We will use the term ‘Humble Madonnas’ in general, referring both to the Umiltà’s and the Mater Amabilis pictures.

There is no greater painter of Mater Amabilis pictures than Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael. Each Madonna he made is a masterpiece and all are different in poses and expressions of Mary and her child. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that despite Mary’s exceeding beauty no man could ever desire her, for the power of her chastity penetrated all who looked at her and all lustful desires were quenched in them G49 . This view of Mary was instilled in all of Raphael’s pictures of the Madonna.

Raphael was born in Urbino in 1483. Urbino has been linked to sophistication in gentle court manners. Here lived Baldassare Castiglione at the court of the Dukes of Montefeltro. Castiglione wrote a book on civilised court manners: ‘Il Corteggiano’, the courtier. This book had an important influence on the relations between people of the Tuscan courts, the noblemen and wealthy merchants. Courtesy was for the first time hailed as a prime virtue. It was a virtue to address ladies with fine, delicate manners of respect. This respect and civilisation can be sensed in Raphael’s pictures. Castiglione was a diplomat and he resided in Rome around the same time as Raphael, who considered him as a dear friend. Raphael even made a well-known portrait of Castiglione. It is maybe strange that courtly manners were introduced from out of the court of Montefeltro. For Federigo de Montefeltro, Lord of Urbino and employer of Castiglione, was a Condottiere, a general of mercenary troops. Federigo linked savagery to courtly manners. But he built a Renaissance castle and in it he assembled a well-furnished library and put his soldier’s money to use of the arts. Italy of the Renaissance was not a quiet country in which arts could thrive in tranquillity and peace. The land was constantly torn with wars among the city-states. The Popes were trying to establish a more stable power for the Papal States and at the same time the Spanish and French struggled for power over Italy. Ruthless dictators forced their power over the city-states. It is almost a miracle that in a time of such upheaval art flourished to the splendid sophistication we now perceive of that century.

Raphael left Urbino for Perugia in 1494, to work in the shop of Pietro Perugino. Around 1504 he travelled to Florence and remained there until 1508, when Pope Julius II called him to the Vatican. Most of Raphael’s Madonna’s date from this Florentine period, such as the ‘Madonna of the Grand Duke’ and the ‘Madonna Tempi’. In Rome, Raphael worked mostly at the apartments of the Popes. Here he made his most famous mural paintings, among which the ‘School of Athens’. Raphael worked in Rome at the same time as Michelangelo and Bramante, the architect of the new Saint Peter. He died young in 1520, merely thirty-seven years old. He made marvellous paintings in Florence as of seventeen years old and the famous mural pictures of the apartments of the Pope at twenty-five. His paintings of Madonnas reflect his youth. These pictures are full of innocence and sweetness, joy and a happy view on life, as yet untouched by the loss of illusions of the mature man.

We look at three pictures that are seemingly very similar, but in which subtle differences become clear when one looks insistently. The ‘Madonna of the Grand Duke’ is a long rectangular painting, the ‘Virgin with Chair’ is a tondo and the ‘Madonna Tempi’ is of a more square form. Raphael has for each of these sweet paintings imagined another pose of Virgin and baby and he has changed the overall impression of the picture in order to realise an image that is harmonious for the particular dimensions of the frames. By Raphael’s times the ancient and traditional examples of Byzantine art were nom ore the images that needed to be copied dogmatically. Raphael could change the poses of the Madonna and of Jesus and adapt the poses to most harmoniously suit the formats of the frames. How he did just that shows his considerable technical genius.

The ‘Madonna Tempi’ was realised for the Tempi family of Florence. The Madonna holds the baby to her face; she holds one hand under the baby, straightens its back with her right hand. This is a very tender gesture, emphasising the kindness of Mary and her love for her baby. Nothing indicates that this is the Holy Virgin Mary with Christ, the Son of God. It could be any mother with her baby. A delicate landscape with a lake and a tower forms the background, but the landscape remains unobtrusive and slim. The landscape is reduced to almost a thin line. The Madonna and child are painted against the blue sky. Mary is in marvellous soft colours: red shirt over yellow sleeves and heavy green cloak. Mary is a very loving mother here, who has only eyes for her baby. In the ‘Madonna Tempi’, the child is held high, to Mary’s face, in a slight kiss, so that the pose is adapted to the square form of the frame. Raphael knew marvellously well how to fill his frames in seemingly simple, easy poses. But we see the subtle skill of the painter in these compositions.

In the ‘Virgin with Chair’, Mary looks straight at the viewer in a slightly defying and interested attitude. Mary is the protective mother in this picture. She holds Jesus somewhat back and the child also leans back, looking afraid and surprised. Mary holds Jesus completely in her arms. She holds her head to the frightened child and there is a simultaneous proud and protective look in her eyes. Mary looks kindly but also somewhat defiantly. Of the chair we see only one wooden stand, a reminiscence of the throne of the Maestà’s. In this tondo John the Baptist is added; he looks respectfully at Mary and child. Untypically, Mary wears a green cloak with an intricate, oriental design. Since this picture is a tondo, Raphael needed to follow the round curves of the frame. He painted Mary with her head inclined, towards the baby, so that the lines of her veiled head and her back follow the round forms of the tondo. By adding John the Baptist, Raphael was able to fill the painting to the right, in width. He has used also the colours green, yellow and blue in order to bring the view to Jesus.

The ‘Madonna of the Grand Duke’ is another picture altogether. Mary is shown standing and we see her in more length. She wears a long cloak that starts in a veil over her head and then falls down, underscoring the long vertical lines of the frame. The baby is held lower, almost to the waist, though in the same way as the ‘Madonna Tempi’. The child could be held lower in this picture, because the frame was longer. Raphael has adapted Mary’s pose to the frame, so that the frame is filled again in a harmonious way. This frame is longer, so Raphael has imagined Mary in a more dignified pose, like the Byzantine Hodegetria. Mary is kind, but she already seems sad at the coming Passion of Jesus, whereas the child seems to want to discover the world, looking in all directions as babies often do. Remark how Raphael introduced liveliness in the image. This Mary is dreamy; she looks somewhat absently. Her gaze is addressed neither at the viewer nor at the baby. The ‘Madonna of the Grand Duke’ contains no background, the frame is painted black so that the Madonna stands out and full interest is retained on Mary and child.

In no painting do Raphael’s Virgin and the Child look in the same direction or at each other. The effect is for the viewer to be interested as much in the Virgin as in Jesus. It emphasises of course the difference between a human woman and the Son of God. And in this view Raphael joined old Byzantine Eleusa presentations, in which Mary melancholically thinks of Jesus’s future cruel Passion.

The paintings of Raphael are so sweet, gentle and yet dignified, as to seem suave to our eyes that are so much more used to contemporary scenes of hard realism and of cruelty. Yet, Raphael was an honest painter who applied all his genius in subtle ways in order to fit pose to frame and to depict the tender love between mother and child in various ways so as not to repeat the same image for his different commissioners. This shows also the power of imagination: even one simple scene such as a mother with her baby offers a myriad of possibilities of representation when imagined by a genius artist.

Raphael exploited his imagination in endless ways to represent ever-different pictures of Mary. But his depiction of Mary is far from the images of the Throning Madonna’s of the early Maesta’s. Raphael’s pictures of Mary are portraits of young, noble women, all very human and close to us. Raphael has remained unsurpassed in his elegant and sweet paintings of the Madonna though this kind of works was one of the most popular in the history of paintings. The Madonna’s we have presented here prove that Raphael had an unequalled natural feeling for composition and balance of volumes that were in harmony with the proportions of his frames.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
Book Next Previous

Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.