Last weekend the annual Sydney J. Freedberg Lecture on Italian Art at the National Gallery of Art was “Not a Painting But a Vision.” Andreas Henning, curator from Dresden, Germany, spoke about The Sistine Madonna, a magnificent altarpiece Raphael painted in 1512 which is now in the Dresden State Art Museum. I have written about it in a previous blog, comparing the Mary of this painting to the Raphael’s lovely image of inner and outer beauty in La Donna Velata.
However, as the title suggested, it is painting of a vision and that Mary is not of this world. She has facial features of that generic beauty similar to those of the Donna Velata, but she is more ethereal and otherworldly. As much as we may want to reach out and hug the baby Jesus, we can’t. The Madonna also carries a tinge of sadness in this image, a practice artists used to reveal Mary recognition that her Son will die someday.
However, two saints, Saint Sixtus and Saint Barbara have brighter colors and lead the transition to the audience on earth. The curator explained that they represent a reconciliation of opposites, as we often find in Raphael’s paintings. They are male and female, old and young, the active life and the contemplative life. But the truth is that they, too, are in heaven.
When the Sistine Madonna was completed and set as an altarpiece in a monastery church in Piacenza, we must imagine curtains framing the Mary, her veil blowing in a wind, as separating one world from another. The drama is in the relationship of the audience to the vision in the work of art. Only the saturated green curtains and a balustrade on bottom are meant to be part of the material world. In fact, in this visionary painting, Raphael has gone behind the Renaissance perspective which aims for imitation of reality. He anticipated the triumphant late Renaissance artist Correggio and the visionary art of Baroque, such as Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.
I’ve never seen this painting, but was thrilled to view the new slides since the painting’s cleaning. In the background, the clouds reveal the faces of many more cherubs. There are 42 faces in the clouds. (These faces are mainly visible in first image on the upper left side.) What glorious illusion!
The curator also pointed out that these sweet and precious angels, who look upward in observation and wonder, were an afterthought which Raphael felt the composition needed them for completion. What impeccable images of innocence, charm and love!