This painting (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) combines secular and earthly clerical elements with the divine in an ostensible theatrical interplay. The lid of the coffin of Pope Julius II forms the stage, while the tableau curtains are drawn apart to reveal the divine action.
This hierarchical pastiche communicates the heavens to the devout in a known way: from the bottom of the painting — the church, along with its highest representative, — through the center, where the saints hover, — and to the top, where Mary with baby Christ on her hands treads the clouds. The myriad of seraphs in the background testifies to the transparency of the scene to both worlds, and its consequent significance to our existence here, as well as there. Perhaps the artist intended for every little alabaster face to find a counterpart in someone on the side of the beholder.
Raphael (read this Britannica article on the artist) includes two little angels as a comic relief to the grave scene, in the best of theatrical traditions. These two seem ungainly in comparison to the Madonna’s stately posture, but not repulsive: on the contrary, they appeal to the viewer in a sympathetic, familiar way (the reason for their incredible popularity, even separately from the Madonna), facilitating contact with the rest of the image.
The humility of the saints becomes the next preparatory psychological step to be taken in order to confront Madonna herself — for she is truly formidable here, unlike Raphael’s usual depiction. She looks straight forward and down at the viewer, self-conscious and ecstatic, mystical and tragic, qualities underlined by the eerie light surrounding her frame.(Perhaps there is some similarity to Correggio’s use of light, or vice-versa.)
Christ’s expression is polar to that of the resting angels. He looks apprehensive, his eyes and pose betraying an almost adult awareness and seriousness. While the lower babes display boredom and impatience, Christ appears caught in the moment, aware of its significance for himself, in the future, and for the devout, in the present. In fact, he may be returning the gaze here, reflecting that of the viewers’ and deliberately engaging them.
All of the mentioned qualities endow the painting with unprecedented intensity. The clarity of the composition (the symmetrical arrangement of the actors) and the modest but strategical use of color make the tension even more lucid and almost palpable, almost unbearable I would say. This is a stark departure from the artist’s previous tame versions, and it signals a shift towards more complex psychological interpretations.