Contrary to the previous Madonna we discussed, this one is poised against a vast landscape background, which supposedly should have undermined and diminished the intimacy of the scene in the foreground. But it is not so. Perhaps the opposite: the rather desolate meadows only emphasize the isolated coziness of the unfolding interaction between the three figures, as Madonna’s figure protects the holy babies from the outer world, serving as a safety barrier.
But the background, containing a depiction of a city, adds tension, reminding the viewer of possible dangers, such as those awaiting Christ and John in populated areas where they would be tried in the future. By venturing outside the studio, Raphael confronted beholders with the uncertainties of real (more public) life and outlined the discrepancy between the worldly and the saintly.
Respectively, spatial depth signifies a step towards emotional maturity and elaborates the devotional message, all the while demanding the same kind of growth from the observers. I think that this pastoral variant demonstrates more life, more blood and bone, if you will. The three actors literally have the chance to breathe and the children respond to their surroundings by engaging in some kind of a game, of religious symbolical meaning nevertheless.
John kneels before baby Christ, simultaneously imitating a blessing with the cross, a foreshadow of what was to come (fundamental Renaissance artistic device). The intimidating landscape adds a touch of immediacy that finds a way out in the vague smile of the Madonna.
Her nearly imperceptible frowning annuls that sign of content, and together they are synthesized into a thin but constant and unsettling sense of disconcertment, which comes to dominate the painting. Only the woman’s face conveys both the carelessness of the present and the torment of the future — and it makes perfect compositional sense that her head, surrounded by the heavens, presides over the land and sea.
Three levels of color cohere into a complex, but clear-cut, classic pyramidal composition: the bleak background, Madonna’s bright dress and the nearly white skin of the babies. It seems that there is no precedence, and each palette level deserves the same degree of attention — what the background lacks in color it compensates for with scope. Thus, besides the religious meaning, we are presented with the universal concept of birth, maturation, and death.
The ground would conceal the remains, hinting at the vacuum left by them with its bareness. To sum up, this image substitutes therapeutic qualities manifested in Madonna del Granduca with vibrant, life affirming characteristics, being more psychologically demanding. A broader, thematically more comprehensive piece, it immerses the viewers in the multiplicity of mental and devotional experiences, being at once more spiritually realistic and challenging.