Dec 172007

This painting (hanging in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts) manifests a strong classical bent. The odd coloring of the babies, the musical instrument in the hands of one of them and the more obvious ancient architectural elements in the back, they all contribute to the thematic epochal dating. The flat hue of the children’s skin seems to have been imported from another era, and coincidentally echoes the more tinted ruins in the background.

The lyre occupying the lower seated infant serves as a direct reference to deities preceding Christianity. But it would be incorrect to compare these babes with cupids or otherwise merry pagan seraphs from mythological Renaissance paintings: they demonstrate seriousness and gravity uncharacteristic of their classical counterparts. The somewhat angular, nearly grotesque composition acts as a neutralizing component, and carries the Christian message through; an exaggeration is needed to oppose, and prevail over the strong classicist motif.

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The Esterhazy Madonna
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The backs of two of the actors turn ostensibly towards the ancient past, baby Christ being protected by Mary’s frame. This immanent gesture identifies the spiritual clerical perception of the devout beholder: deny and leave the heresy behind and fully accept the holy figures in front of you as the only true divinities and saints. Once again, Mary’s head unequivocally crowns the entire composition, as if to reaffirm her ultimate precedence over other religious heads, in both meanings of the word.

There is another interesting observation to be made — she, as a woman, represents the continuation of life, in this case, the life of the Catholic faith. We witness her “fertility” in the form of two small children, playing busily beside her; the dilapidated, colorless structure behind her represents the sterility and inevitable degeneration. The painting becomes a playground for a theological dispute.

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Sistine Madonna, c.1513-1514
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Conceptually, this is an even more demanding piece. Raphael imports extraneous cultural elements, sets them off against Catholic religious characters and prompts the beholder to conduct the synthesis. Though the artist guides the viewers with palette, giving only the Madonna a fully colored outfit, the complexity of the overall design is undeniable.

Additionally, a strange air of mystery transpires from the painterly surface; it could be the haunting blue of the sky, or the monotonous, light brown of the hills, encircling and perhaps threatening the main event. There is an air of notional abstraction, akin to that emanating from da Vinci’s Gioconda — it could be the result of the combination between the particular central images and the distant, both physically and psychologically background. And as it often happens, the mystery only adds to the appeal of the piece as a whole.

  3 Responses to “Raphael: The Esterhazy Madonna”

  1. The photograph of the Esterhazy Madonna as depicted accompanying this article is a mirror image of the painting!!!

  2. Thank you for your comment Ellen, I have already answered a similar comment here.

  3. The babies aren’t painted a strange hew. The painting was never finished, so the figures remained unfinished as well.

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