Dec 232007

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.

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Sistine Madonna, Painted …
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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.)

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Detail of the Sistine Madonna, c.1514
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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.

  7 Responses to “Raphael: The Sistine Madonna”

  1. How does one explain 5 fingers and a thumb on the Pope’s right hand?

  2. It is widely known that popes, once inaugurated, grow an additional finger in order for their blessings to carry all the divine force that comes with the office. Raphael knew that, of course, and presented the transformation after the fact… I have no idea, Mark, and thanks for drawing my attention to this interesting anomaly. I suppose that could have been a mistake carried out by an apprentice, though it’s hard to believe, as usually the master painted the hands and the faces, or by the master himself (even harder to believe, but not improbable). Maybe there’s indeed some meaning to that. Maybe the pope really had six fingers (though I think there was an attempt to conceal one of them in the painting) — though usually the sixth finger, if not removed at birth, is much smaller than the others, and is deformed. Any other ideas?

  3. the pope does not have a sixth finger. the ‘extra pinky’ is actually just a bit of his palm that’s in light (: try observing the picture from a book (: so much better. not the crappy ones though. try the ones with glossy pages. nah i dont think they were able to grow a sixth finger back then. a bit of a late reply mark, elijah, buuut there you go (:

  4. I started searching for critiques on the Sistine Madonna because I noticed Sixtus’ right hand haside six digits. This is not a poor rendering of the painting plus there’s a detail of the hand included with the article I was reading, which clearly shows six digits. It’s no doubt symbolic but what is the meaning? That’s what I want to ascertain.

  5. Hi Cate,

    Thank you for your comment and interest. I agree that this is a bit of a mystery, but I suspect that it was resolved (or at least thought about) by art historians. The Italian Renaissance is one of the most studied subjects in the discipline, traditionally so. I would suggest taking your research a step up, and try looking for academic articles. Chances are high you will find something.

  6. How does this painting demonstrate the five themes of humanism?

  7. Hi Anj,

    I understand you need to write an essay on this painting? I think you better consult the library and find a book that describes these themes; then you can try and iconographically place them in the painting.

    Good Luck! :)

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