‘The liberality with which Heaven now and again unites in one person the inexhaustible riches of its treasures and all those graces and rare gifts which are usually shared among many over a long period is seen in Raphael Sanzio of Urbino.’ (Vasari: Lives of the Great Artists.)
Bombs fell like rain during air-raids over Dresden, in February 1945. The city was raised to the ground. Yet one miracle occurred amidst the scene of total destruction and annihilation: The Sistine Madonna was rescued, intact. This masterpiece, painted by the great Italian Renaissance artist Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, 1483-1520), is not simply one of the finest paintings in human history but a sublime example of Christian art.
The Sistine Madonna is an oil painting in which the highest ideals of tender maternal love are universally expanded. It is perhaps the best example of an extensive series of Holy mother and child compositions, which Raphael created. It expresses the culmination of his own artistic development and conveys the full aesthetic harmony of the High Renaissance. For our purpose however, its unique interest arises through the way in which it reflects the most noble feelings and ideals that exist both privately and in our shared humanity. Indeed, it is a painting that lives for all people, for all time.
Raphael emerges during his short life, out of the depths of human spiritual evolution, like a brilliant star that flashes for a moment, then is gone. Yet within his brief lifetime his mission is fulfilled. His legacy is the majestic creations that live on into the future to inspire mankind. One of the greatest of these is the Sistine Madonna. Its miraculous escape from the ravages of the second world war give the painting an aura of divine protection. Not surprisingly then, the painting is concerned with the incarnation of the Prince of Peace, himself. And similarly, though Raphael himself grew up in the tumultuous world of Florentine Italy, the artist is praised by Vasari, for his exceptional humane and gentle nature.
Born on Good Friday, and dying on the same day thirty seven years later, one gets the feeling that Raphael must have a special relationship to the Christian faith. Indeed, his paintings continually reveal how deeply he was connected to the mysteries of Christianity. Through his paintings, he became the forerunner of a new Christian expression, free of dogma, liberated from the quarrels of the Papal States, transcendent in all aspects. His works embody a progressive, cosmopolitan Christianity that blows through the complex decadence of medieval religion, like the breath of spring.
Although born into quiet, humble beginnings in Urbino, revolutions in the wider environment shaped Raphael’s art as he grew up. The influence of ancient Greece electrified the artistic scene of Florence and Rome and the greatest works of Hellenism were unearthed during Raphael’s youth. These works of antiquity were inspirational to the young artist and he was able to distil from the beauty and perfection of their sculptural forms, the unparalleled harmony and composure that characterises his own paintings. This is evident in the classical grace that suffuses the composition of the Sistine Madonna.
The quality of Raphael’s artistic genius attracted the attention of the spiritual leaders of the Renaissance and he was highly favoured by religious leaders. Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to create a painting for the high alter at the Benedictine monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza, Italy in 1512. Here, Raphael’s painting, the Sistine Madonna received its name. Since the relics of Pope Sisto and Saint Barbara were housed in this abbey, Raphael includes them in the painting, to enhance the revelation. However, the main focus of this masterpiece is, undoubtedly, the Holy Mother and the Christ child.
That Raphael lost his own mother when he was only eight years old is highly significant. His series of Madonna paintings, reveal how the artist transformed the lost embrace of his own mother into the great archetypes we now see. The Sistine Madonna is no exception to this. However, this painting evolves remarkably from all his other Madonna paintings. Raphael’s earlier Madonnas focus more on the tender intimacy of maternal love, in its earthly aspect. For example, the Bridgewater Madonna, housed in the National Gallery of Scotland depicts the Holy mother delighting in the playful babe.
The Sistine Madonna moves beyond the personal however, for she becomes occupied with the eternal, as Queen of Heaven. The painting’s greatness, in its culmination of the Madonna theme, rests in its supreme universality. Now, the Holy mother and child are involved in their explicit divine purpose. Their gaze is turned firmly outward, in an offering gesture. They are looking at you and I. Their love has now become, our love. The love of all.
Mary and the infant Christ appear in the Sistine Madonna as if emerging from the spiritual world itself. Green curtains, symbolising the earth, are rented apart so that the Madonna and child can be viewed in their full divine splendour. As the radiance of the beauty of the heavenly scene is revealed to us, we feel as if let into a secret landscape of heaven; as if participating in a rare glimpse into the mind of God. The Madonna and child are emerging amidst a golden, gleaming sunrise; as if illuminated by the dazzling light of heaven itself. All the while, young Mary is portrayed with an aura of assured dignity in the gentle confidence of her outward gaze, gesture and the bold colours of her raiment. Her garments of red and blue denote both earthly and heavenly love that she is to embody. Her simple humanity is characterised by the way she stands barefoot on the clouds edging towards the viewer. She holds the babe with a forward looking gesture, presenting him to the world; indeed, to us. In this way, God proclaims, ‘here is my beloved son.
The infant Christ rests contentedly on the arm of the Holy mother. Although vulnerable and dependant, emanating love and gentleness, he is also robust and awake. His countenance reveals clear consciousness of his divine purpose; the bearer of all-prevailing love. He looks us straight in the eye as the archetypal infant of all humanity. He is coming our way and is one of us. And in the multitude of children’s faces that hover in the background. We see the ‘every child’ in the stream of humanity, poised for incarnation.
Below the Holy mother and child, Sains Sistus and Barbara straddle the planes of earth and heaven. Their hand on their heart gesture expresses the devotion with which they view the divine spectacle. Sistus, appears in sunlight’s golden cloak. He directs our upward gaze whilst his out-pointing hand reminds us how the vision is not speaking to him alone but to the whole of mankind. We are involved.
Saint Barbara is more self-contained. She accompanies the virgin and child in their descent to earth with a quiet dignity and inward tenderness. Her graceful swirl, echoes the movement of the Virgin and child. She looks down towards the world into which the infant Christ will incarnate and live out his sublime yet harrowing destiny. Her delicate forward motion revealing the true nature of Christianity; that it is not so much an ideology but a way.
Lastly, two adorable little cherubs look on with an innocent gaze. Whilst their effect is to anchor the harmonious balance of composition and emphasise the revelation they also serve to emphasise the revelation their lightness and charm, balance the mood of the painting.
The Sistine Madonna now resides in the Zwinger Gallery in Germany. For hundreds of years and to this day then, the Sistine Madonna has profoundly lifted and transformed the souls of those beholding it, reminding us of our true spiritual nature and origin. It defeats and transcends all the narrow limitations of dogma and doctrine. It embodies hope, transformation and a sense of protection.
As our world becomes ever more diverse with all races, cultures and faiths, this painting is not an exclusively Christian icon. In the St John Gospel we learn that Christ came as a light, ‘for every human being in the world’. This modern type of freedom is embodied in the Sistine Madonna.
Most people in our modern world are repelled by acts of violence and in the current horrors committed in the name of politics and religion. Raphael himself lived in turbulent times. Yet the calm beauty of his soul shines through this painting, reassuring us that Christ’s purpose is to bring peace and renewal to the suffering world. Divine love, descending from the heavens reveals the greatest love for humanity.
The bombs are still falling in our time, right now. Not on Dresden but on Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan... Vast swathes of our fellow human beings are on the move, millions of people in desperate search for a place of peace, in search of home. And what has this got to do with the Sistine Madonna today? Perhaps the Holy Mother Mary carries one sure antidote to the conflicts that rage within and all around us; the healing power of Christ.
The Sistine Madonna ever reminds us of our true spiritual origin; how we are far more than our bitter quarrels, hatreds, harms and compulsion toward destruction. Our true nature, comes from God. It is not partisan or separate but intrinsically part of a greater unity, an organic whole. The Holy mother and her Child, embody the better part of each one of us that is kind and brave and beautiful. The painting reveals how there is a greater soul that lives amongst us in our communities which is caring, compassionate and life-affirming. It is the greater love; the all-embracing, world–renewing, cosmic love, which defines us as creatures of light, not darkness. Through this darkness, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna illuminates our noblest part, our true humanity.