The Sistine Madonna – Raphael
The Sistine Madonna is a painting by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael, circa 1512–1514. It is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (old masters) of Dresden, Germany.
Raphael seemed to have attained perfection in the Virgin with the Fish; however, four or five years later, he was to rise infinitely higher and display something superior to art and inaccessible to science.
It was in 1518 that the Benedictines of the monastery of St. Sixtus ordered this picture. They had required that the Virgin and the Infant Jesus should be in the company of St. Sixtus and St. Barbara. This is how Raphael entered into their views.
Deep shadows were veiling from us the majesty of the skies. Suddenly light succeeds the obscurity, and the Infant Jesus and Mary appear surrounded by a brightness so intense that the eyes can scarcely bear it. Between two green curtains drawn to either side of the picture, amid an aureole of innumerable cherubin, the Virgin is seen standing upon the clouds, with her son in her arms, showing him to the world as its Redeemer and Sovereign Judge. Lower down, St. Sixtus and St. Barbara are kneeling on the clouds on either side. Nothing is visible of the earth, but it is divined by the gestures and glances of the two saints, who are pointing to the multitude for whom they are imploring the divine mercy. Two angels are leaning on a kind of balustrade whose horizontal line forms a solid plane at the base of the composition. Nothing could be more elementary than the idea of such a picture; the ancient symmetry and the most rigid parallelism are scrupulously observed. Raphael becomes almost archaic, and, while returning to the simplicity of primitive traditions, by the force of genius he confounds the scientific exaggeration that is already so close to decadence. Doubtless he had raised his eyes high every time he had taken antiquity as a model, but he raised them much higher still by becoming exclusively Christian again, and by comprehending that the humblest way is not only the surest, but also the most sublime. Why is such simple means so highly successful in exalting our feelings? Why is it, when looking at this picture, we have moments of divine oblivion in which we fancy ourselves in Heaven? That is what we must try to penetrate and comprehend.
The principal figure of the picture is the Infant Jesus. He is no longer the graceful Bambino that we have so often seen in the arms of Raphael’s Madonnas, gentle and encouraging to the eyes of mankind, or again he who, ere while, in the Virgin with the Fish, leaned towards the young Tobit; it is the God himself, it is the God of Justice and of the Last Day. In the most humble state of our flesh, beneath the veil of infancy, we see the terrifying splendor of infinite majesty in this picture. The divine Infant leaves between himself and us a place for fear, and in his presence we experience something of the fear of God that Adam felt and that he transmitted to his race. For attaining such heights of impression the means employed by Raphael are of an incomprehensible simplicity. The Infant Jesus nestles familiarly in his mother’s arms. Sitting on a fold of the white veil that the Virgin supports with her left hand, he leans against the Madonna’s right arm; his legs are crossed one above the other; the whole of the left arm follows the bend of the body and the left hand rests upon the right leg; at the same time, the right shoulder being raised by Mary’s hand, the right arm is bent at the elbow and the hand grasps the Virgin’s veil. This attitude, so natural, so true, so unstudied, expresses grandeur and sovereignty. Nothing can be more elementary nor more powerful. The light rests calmly upon every part of this beautiful body and all its members in such fine repose. Humanity was never seen under such radiance. The Son of God, in transporting to Heaven the terrestrial form of his infancy, has made it divine for all eternity. Raphael doubtless owed to antiquity something of the power that enabled him spontaneously to create such a masterpiece; but in this case he has far surpassed his models, and we should search vainly in antique art for a more ideal and grand figure than that of this marvellous infant. However, hitherto we have only examined the body, what shall we say about the head to give a true idea of it? In fact, that is perhaps the most extraordinary and most indescribable part of the whole picture. The Infant Jesus seems to recoil from the spectacle of human shame; he lovingly presses against the Virgin’s breast, softly rests his forehead against his Mother’s cheek, and darts towards the world one of those flaming and terrible glances at which, it is said, everything in heaven, on earth, and in hell trembles. His disordered hair stands upright and quivers as in the breath of the tempest, and somber clouds pass across the widely modeled forehead; the brows are frowning, the pupils dilate and the flame is ready to dart forth; the eyes, profound and terrible, are preparing to flash with lightning; they still withhold it, but we feel that it may break forth, and we tremble. This glance is truly splendid; it fascinates you, attracts you, and, at the same time, fills you with terror. The lips are quivering, and, from the point of view of line, that is the great mystery, I think; the upper lip, visibly lifted on the left side, assumes a strange accent of anger and indignation. This deviation of a single feature is materially a small matter, and yet it suffices to stamp the whole countenance with irresistible action. The Infant Jesus assumes a formidable aspect; we recognize in him the Sovereign Judge; his power is infinite and one act of his will be sufficient to condemn or absolve. The Virgin of the Chair had given us a presentiment of this image in 1516; the Virgin of St. Sixtus shows it to us in 1518, in its eternal grandeur and sublime reality. But the Word of God would scarcely leave room for anything but fear, if the Virgin did not immediately come to shed hope in the soul terrified at the idea of justice.
In fact, the Virgin remains calm and serene beside her enraged son, and reassures our heart also with her confidence. If she presents the Son of God to the world under a terrifying aspect, at the same time she presses him so tenderly against her breast, and her features, under the splendor of the divine radiance, shine with such purity that we feel the flame that purifies all passing within ourselves.
The Virgin appears here like the dawning light. She advances from right to left, beautiful as the skies, light as the cloud that bears her. Her gait, or rather her flight through the air, is stamped with royal nobleness and dignity. Her right hand, raised as high as the shoulder, holds the body of Jesus under his right arm, and the Saviour lies back against his Mother’s right arm, while Mary’s left arm is placed under the Infant’s body to support and carry him. The Virgin of St. Sixtus, like every Madonna, wears a red robe and a white mantle; and Art has never done greater things with drapery with such simple elements. The mantle falls with a beautiful movement over the lower part of the body and floats in wide folds, which, while sharply defining the form and movement of the lower limbs, reveals the bare feet which are of admirable form and colour. The robe, ornamented only with a little gold embroidery on the sleeve, is of a purple tint in the shadows and becomes rose in the light; it is girdled below the breast like the antique statues, and reveals the neck as well as the top of the shoulders, which are surrounded by a veil of white gauze. A long scarf of the same colour as the veil but tinted with bistre, is placed on the crown of the head, and, distending like a sail above the left shoulder, returns to the left hand to serve as a support for the Infant, and runs along the body of Jesus, who grasps it with his right hand. The Virgin’s head appears in full illumination without any artifice, and glows solely with its own beauty. It is three quarters left, indeed almost full face, in a similar position but in opposition to the Saviour’s head, which, as we have seen, is three quarters right and almost full face also. The hair, a light chestnut, is arranged simply in smooth and flat bands lightly waved above the brow, leaving the ears, cheeks, and temples completely uncovered, and not interfering in any way with the outlines of the face. The forehead, of a medium height, presents a widely developed surface, in the centre of which glows a light that is continued down the bridge of the nose. The eyes, of irreproachable shape, are full of brilliance, and their gaze sheds over all it illumines an infinite softness mingled with an indefinable exaltation. The mouth trembles with divine emotion and seems to quiver with celestial bliss.
Another remarkable thing in this supreme manifestation of genius is that in the Virgin and the Infant, of such different, we might almost say such opposite expressions, the same features are noticeably repeated. Raphael has been faithful to the last to the system he adopted in almost his earliest pictures, and to make this intentional resemblance more noticeable here he has placed the two heads close together, and shown them almost full face, so that there shall be no distracting element; and has opposed them to each other by turning them in different ways so that they may complement each other and be reflected in one another as in a mirror. Therefore, as the same glory surrounds both Mother and Son at the same time, so the same character of beauty is found faithfully reproduced in each. The skulls of both have the same general conformation, the same intelligence shines upon the two brows, although the Saviour’s is dark and menacing whilst the Virgin’s remains radiant and clear; the eyes have also the same shape and are full of the same fire, though the glance of the one is terrible and of the other, reassuring; the mouth has the same lines, the same nobility, and the same quiver that has the power of alternately inspiring terror and tranquility; and the cleft in the chin is identical. The colour also helps to make an almost perfect unity of these two figures—we have the same white and solid flesh tints, strong and delicate; the same warm and always luminous shadows. Indeed, Jesus is confounded with Mary, so to speak, so that the two forms together make one and the same body, and, moreover, the Saviour at need may get rid of his majestic nakedness beneath the veil and in the mantle of Mary.
This Virgin, in which Raphael has surpassed himself, was painted in a moment of veritable exaltation of genius. It was not laboriously conceived; it was born of itself, spontaneously complete, like the antique Minerva, with its perfect form and beauty, and it was the recompense for an entire life consecrated without intermission to the search after nature and truth, to the study of the masters and all the traditions, to the cult of the ideal and especially of the Virgin.
After having produced so many rare masterpieces, his love and faith were carried to such a pitch of power and enthusiasm that he seemed to be borne up by them, and, suddenly penetrating into a sphere superior to all he had hitherto visited, he painted a Virgin incomparably more beautiful than all the admirable Virgins he had painted before. Not a single design, nor preparatory study, puts us on the trace of any bringing forth of any of the parts of this picture.
However, if the image of this Virgin was traced on the canvas by a hand suddenly inspired, I think that at the same time Raphael confronted his inspiration with nature, and that, whilst resolutely springing towards the infinite, he yet set himself face to face with reality. Perhaps, strictly, he would have had no need of that; he had amassed so much, his memory placed such numerous, varied, and exact documents at the service of his will, that he had only to remember in order almost immediately to produce an accomplished whole. Moreover, he had the model he wanted, possessing without dominating it; and without losing sight of his ideal, it was to this model that he applied himself for the embodiment of his idea. Thus, in the Virgin of St. Sixtus, we recognize, not the image of La Fornarina, but the transfiguration of her image. None of her features are left and yet it is she, but so purified that no trouble nor shadow comes to dim the radiant and virginal brightness of the picture. In every human creature there is a divine germ that cannot flourish on earth and whose blossoming is only in the skies; this is the flowering, the splendour of which is shown in the Virgin of St. Sixtus. We care very little about Raphael’s private life; we only affirm in the presence of his work that as a painter he did not love for this life only, and that from the beginning to the end of his career he had the respect and the taste for eternal love. Since the day when the Virgin appeared transfigured to the seer of the Apocalypse, she had never revealed herself in such effulgence. Before this picture, we lose every memory of earth and see nothing but the Queen of Heaven and of the angels, the creature elect and blessed above all creatures. In thus painting the Virgin, Raphael has almost reached the confines of divinity.
But everything in this picture is food for admiration, even the atmosphere that envelops it and those innumerable and endless legions of cherubin that gravitate around the Virgin and the Word of God. The aureole that encircles the divine group shows nothing at first but dazzling and golden light; then, as it recedes from the centre, this light gradually pales and insensibly merges from the most intense gold into the purest blue, and is filled with those heads, chaste, innocent, and fervent, that spring beneath the brush of Raphael like the flowers at the breath of Spring. These aërial creatures throng to contemplate the Virgin, and their forms recall those radiances in the shape of crowns that fill the Dantesque Paradise, making the name of Mary resound with their praises. Our eyes and mind lose themselves in the immense multitude of these happy spirits. “Number if you can the sands of the sea or the stars in the sky, those that are visible and invisible, and still believe that you have not attained the number of the angels. It costs God nothing to multiply the most excellent things, and it is the most beautiful of which he is most prodigal.” We cannot keep our eyes away from that sky; we gaze at it and love to dazzle and weary our eyes with it.
On either side of the Virgin, kneel St. Sixtus and St. Barbara. Placed also amid the clouds, but below the Madonna, they are near the sovereign mediatrix, as mediators also between the world and the Sovereign Judge. St. Sixtus is seen on the right in profile, his head is raised towards the Infant Jesus, his left hand is placed devoutly on his breast while his right is foreshortened and points towards the spectator. He wears a white rochet tied by a girdle with golden tassels, a white amice around his neck, a magnificent pallium woven with gold falling to his feet, and a long chasuble embroidered with gold and lined with red enveloping his shoulders and arms, the wide folds of which are lost amid the clouds. His head is bare, and his white tiara, adorned with the triple crown, is placed on the balustrade that runs horizontally across the base of the picture. It is impossible to find a representation of pontifical sovereignty of greater fervour, grandeur, and truth. His cranium is bald and has only a crown of grey hair remaining. His emaciated face is full of ardour and power: his eyes penetrate straight into the splendour of God; and his mouth, although partially hidden by the grey beard that covers the lower part of his face, is praying with extraordinary fervour. His gesture, so resolute and respectful, is in itself an act of love and charity, and his very hands, so true in drawing and so bold in action, have their special eloquence. It seems impossible that the divine justice will not allow itself to be swayed by such intercession.
St. Barbara is opposite St. Sixtus. Her body is in left profile, towards the Virgin, while her head, turned over her left shoulder towards the spectator, appears almost in full face. Only her left arm and hand are visible, pressed against her breast. Her left knee, directly resting upon the cloud, sustains the weight of her body; her right leg, which is raised, only touches the clouds with the foot. Her head is as beautiful, youthful, and fresh as the action of her whole figure is easy, elegant, and noble. Then where did Raphael find this serenity if not in himself? The saint, gently bending towards the earth, seems to want to receive our hopes and vows to bear them to Heaven. She is one of those virgins who are created in the image of the Virgin par excellence. Nevertheless, here she affects certain worldly appearances which, beside the severe simplicity of the Mother of the Word, establish a hierarchy between the two figures and a sort of line of demarcation that cannot be crossed. The higher we soar the more is grandeur simplified in everything.
St. Barbara’s hair is arranged with a certain elegance; it is very abundant, of an ash blonde, and forms thick waving bands that are gathered off the temples and are crossed by two white fillets, one of which crosses the top of the forehead like a diadem. Her eyes, lowered towards the earth, are perfectly beautiful; her mouth is calm and sweet; and purity shines in all her features. Her shoulders are bare, only covered with a veil of white gauze which falls down her back, passes under her arm and returns to her breast where her left hand holds it. Her robe of violet shading into a neutral tint, is only visible where it covers her leg; for a green mantle, thrown over it, envelops the body, only revealing the arm, the sleeve of which is blue on the upper arm, yellow, and slightly puffed at the shoulder, and yellow also on the forearm. All this is of a grand air and in exquisite taste. Thus draped, the figure has a charming effect which, without detracting from the religious idea, leaves room also for a more human sentiment.
Raphael, doubtless, had thought that the figures of the Virgin, the Infant Jesus, St. Sixtus, and St. Barbara would alone be sufficient for his picture; but the empty space remaining beneath the feet of the Madonna was too considerable to be filled up simply by clouds: and therefore he added that rigid and horizontal supporting bar on which two angels lean upon their elbows, contemplating the glory of the Virgin with such rapture. In fact, these angels seem to be painted as an afterthought, for, laid in with a light brush, they scarcely cover the clouds, but allow the underlying pigment to show through.
Little wings of vivid tint complete these aërial creatures, always living around Raphael and always ready to come from his brush. Although held to nature by the most intimate ties, although perhaps too familiar in attitude and manner, they are yet supernatural by the clearness of their intelligence and by the power of their admiration. We are enchanted with their candour and beauty. They are full of zeal and enthusiasm; they possess the grace of the Pagan Loves merged into Christian innocence and chastity. Their faith is as beautiful as the sky, and in loving them it is almost for God himself that we feel the love.
Such are the various parts of this work; their union forms the most sublime harmony, and each in particular brings a divine note to this celestial concert. By what process was this picture produced? We can scarcely say, so greatly does the inspiration predominate over the technique.
Raphael aimed at the sublime; and the rest was given to him as increase. The colour is just what it should be in such a subject; whilst keeping to a sweet, calm, and peaceful scale, it is resplendent with light, and we ask ourselves whether it is not the hand of an angel rather than that of a man that has been able to realize such a marvel.
The Virgin of St. Sixtus is the most beautiful picture in the world. To copy this Virgin is to attempt the impossible. Study it a hundred times and a hundred times it will reveal itself under a new aspect. It was before this picture, it is said, that Correggio cried: “And I also, I am a painter.”
The Virgin of St. Sixtus was immediately placed where it was meant to be; it was present in triumph every day for two hundred and thirty-six years at the divine sacrament; and never was a human work so worthy of that signal honour.
In 1734 the degenerate monks of St. Sixtus preferred a little gold to their inestimable masterpiece, and for a miserable sum of a hundred and some thousands of francs (110,000 to 120,000), they sold their Virgin to Augustus III., Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. That day the barbarians were not those the Italians think….
At Dresden, the Madonna was received with great pomp. Augustus III. had it brought in haste into the reception hall of his palace; as the place of honour was occupied by the throne, he, himself, seized the royal chair, and relegating it to a less conspicuous station, he cried: “Room for the great Raphael.” If this is historic, it does honor to the prince; if legendary, it is to the glory of the people whose sentiment it translates.
By F.A. GRUYER “Les Vierges de Raphaël ” (Paris).