Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-14. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.
I am constantly reminded of something that, when I first heard it, was attributed to Mark Twain: ‘I am sorry to have written such a long letter: I didn’t have time to write a short one’. Since then I have heard it attributed to any number of other authors, and really, I don’t have the time to research a short conclusion – so I shan’t. I was reminded of this during my lecture last week. Having tried to cover the life of short-lived artist Caravaggio in three talks, I thought four would be ideal for Raphael, who lived one year less (he died at 37, unlike Caravaggio, who lived to the ripe old age of 38). And yet, and yet… there is always more to say. So today I want to think about one of the glorious paintings which I just haven’t had time to include in the lectures. Why so busy? Well, that’s enough about me. There are two more talks in the Raphael series, though. Tomorrow, Monday 19 July, at 6pm I have re-named Telling Tales and Spinning Yarns, and then next Monday, 26 July, I will discuss the last phase of his prodigious career in the talk Competition and Collaboration. And then no more talks for at least a month. It’s not a holiday, but a break from art for acting. So if you like theatre, and find yourself on the South Devon Coast (Sidmouth, to be precise) or near Peterborough, I will be appearing in three of the four one-act plays which make up Neil Simon’s California Suite. But for now, back to Raphael.
You are aware of the concept of fallen angels, I presume, but have maybe not come across a displaced angel… but these two have certainly been cut adrift. You can find them in almost any large Italian town, staring up from the pavement and accompanied by an assorted array of different posters of varying standards and sensibilities. However, should the police appear, they will be whisked away, caught up in the sheet on which they have been reclining. Perhaps they serve a function as the guardian angels of street vendors, alerting them to the imminent arrival of rain or sun, thus explaining the supernatural ability of these outcast men (they are always men) to appear beside you with an umbrella or an array of sun glasses within seconds of the downpour or subsequent brilliant glare. And yet, despite their ubiquity, these angels are far from home: far from their original home, that is, and even further from their current place of residence. They are seen completely out of context, and few people – from among those likely take them home – would be able to tell you what they are and where they really live. And that is because no one on their holidays in Italy would have seen them: they too are on holiday, from Dresden. I should say that I do find them entirely charming, both leaning on the window sill, it seems (although as often as not, as here, that has been cropped out of the image), looking up at we know not what, one with his chin on his crossed arms, the other resting his head on his hand, that typical gesture of thought. Both are on the verge of boredom, it seems, and yet they still hold the possibility of being entertained. What is it that they are contemplating? And is their interest sustained by the possibility that things will get better or worse? Well, let’s put them into context.
They come from Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, which he completed in 1514, a painting which is now one of the highlights (if not the highlight) of the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. Despite the name, it was not painted for the Sistine Chapel, nor was it painted for Pope Sixtus IV, after whom the chapel is named, as he died in 1484, the year after Raphael was born. However, it was painted for his nephew, Julius II, the Pope who commissioned Raphael to paint his Rooms in the Vatican Palace, and commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine ceiling. The ensuing disputes between the two great artists will feature in next week’s talk. Julius died the year after he commissioned the painting, and the year before it was completed, during the papacy of Leo X, the Pope who asked Raphael to design him a nice set of tapestries (the subject of tomorrow’s talk). However, the painting never had a home in Rome: it was commissioned for the Church of St Sixtus in Piacenza. More of that later, though, let’s have a look at the painting.
We see the Madonna standing on the clouds in a form of contrapposto – her weight on her right leg, the left leg bent, with the heel lifting off the ground, for all the world as if she is walking towards us, carrying her child – or, in theological terms, as if she is carrying her child towards us for the salvation of all the world. Her blue cloak is blowing to the right and the golden veil billowing as a result of a breeze. Two saints, male and female, kneel at her feet, the man looking up at her while gesturing to us, the woman exchanging glances with the angel on our left. The heavenly vision has been revealed to us thanks to a pair of green curtains, which have been drawn back to frame the Virgin on either side of the painting.
Tied visibly on our right, and behind the frame on the left, the bunching of the curtains means that the rings with which they are hung are unevenly spaced – a touch of naturalism to help us believe the supernatural. The slim rod bows from the weight, revealing more sky at the top of the painting, suffused with ethereal members of the heavenly host – pale blue cherubim and seraphim merging with the clouds. Both Mother and Child look out at us – or do they look just past us? – wide-eyed, even concerned. Jesus sits cross-legged, like the monarchs of medieval manuscript illumination, preparing to judge us – to condemn, or have mercy. The motif of the curtain is also medieval in origin. In Matthew’s account of the crucifixion – Chapter 27:50-51 to be precise – we read:
50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent…
This event – the rending of the curtain – is interpreted as the revelation of divine truth, and here too, in this painting, the truth is revealed, as Mary presents us with her child, our saviour. Note how the curtains are at a level to frame the standing Virgin, but would not necessarily hang low enough to cover the saints. Like us, they are witnesses to this vision, this revelation, not part of it.
On the left is St Sixtus, who, as Pope Sixtus II, was the Bishop of Rome from 257-258, at which point he was martyred under the Emperor Valerian along with the better known St Lawrence. He puts his left hand on his chest, and gestures towards us with his right hand. On the right is St Barbara, a saint whose life spanned the late third and early fourth centuries. Like St Sixtus, she also puts her left hand on her chest and, given the implied symmetry, not to mention the turn of her body, may well be using her right hand to indicate her attribute, the model of the tower in which she was imprisoned by her pagan father. This can be seen over her shoulder at the bottom of the visible section of the curtain. She is dressed in a complex, but elegant, fashion, with overlapping yellow and blue puffed sleeves, and a blue/violet cloak with a green lining. The diagonal of the green continues up through the flicking cloak of the Virgin, leading our eye towards the Christ child’s left foot – which is notably at the eyeline of both martyrs. They are ideally placed to kiss it, a sign of their humility and obeisance.
But then, if the painting were in place on an altar, the Virgin’s own feet, so delicately poised on the weight-bearing clouds, would be at the right height for us to do the same. Sixtus’s cope, the hem of which is subtly embroidered with saints seated in shell-topped niches, hangs down below him, linking us to the more heavenly realm. He has placed his triple tiara – the headgear worn by popes up until the 1960s (when they also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove St Barbara from the Canon of Saints) – on the same ledge on which the cherubs lean. Their melancholy gaze (which, like the startled look of Madonna and Child, probably results from the inevitability of Christ’s death, combined with a subtle hint of the awe that his revelation entails) leads our eye back up to the top of the painting.
Visually, this is a masterpiece in direction and redirection. The angels, closest to us, look up towards St Barbara, and she gestures back to her tower. Rising from this, the curtain takes us up to the Virgin. The green lining of Barbara’s cloak takes our eyes to Christ’s foot, at the same level as her head and that of St Sixtus. He looks up to the Madonna and Child while she looks down, a different form of contrapposto which Raphael uses to keep us attentive, and to keep our eyes exploring, travelling across the surface of the painting, discovering every detail. Sixtus is interceding on our behalf, looking up to Jesus, begging him for mercy for us, miserable sinners – and pointing back towards us, making us reflect on our own existence, and reminding us that we too should pray. His cope hangs down close to us, we could even reach out and touch the hem of this garment, just as the woman with ‘an issue of blood’ did in Luke 8:43-48 when she thought Jesus wasn’t looking. The golden cope catches our eyes, and leads our attention back up to Sixtus’s face, and so back to Mary and Jesus. Its red lining echoes the visible section of Mary’s dress, both forming curved arrows which, like so much else, point up towards Jesus: there is constant upward motion. If you join the heads of the saints to Mary’s head, and the hands of the saints to Christ’s foot, you will have two parallel arrows pointing upwards, framed by the hanging curtains, echoed at the bottom by the angels – all leading us up towards the un-depicted God the Father, imagined as looking down from heaven. This upward motion is part of the inspiration for this painting.
On the left is a late 15th Century drawing by one of the followers of Perugino, part of the collection of the Albertina in Vienna. It shows us what the fresco Perugino painted on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel looked like. The chapel is dedicated (not that you’d know it now) to the Assumption of the Virgin, and this image was painted in fresco as an altarpiece, only to be destroyed when Michelangelo created his Last Judgement.
At the bottom of the drawing we see Sixtus IV kneeling with his triple tiara sitting on the ground, much as it does in Raphael’s painting. He is confirmed as St Peter’s successor by the man himself, who places his left hand on his head, and taps him on the shoulder with one of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, almost as if knighting him from behind. At the bottom of the mandorla – or almond-shaped glory – surrounding the Virgin Mary are three winged cherubim heads, looking up in much the same way that Raphael’s two angels do. St Paul stands on the right, resting one hand on his sword, and looking out towards us. It is all but impossible that Raphael did not know the original painting.
As a Franciscan, Sixtus IV – born Francesco della Rovere – had a strong belief in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (for which, see Day 71 and Day 72). In 1473 he made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which had previously been a purely private affair, into a fully public, official celebration. Six years later he dedicated the chapel which bears his name on the Feast of the Assumption (which is a logical outcome of the Immaculate Conception), that is, on 15 August, 1483 – hence the subject of Perugino’s fresco. But why didn’t he become Pope Francis? Why did he choose a different name? St Francis was a worthy model, after all, and according to his followers, alter Christi – ‘another Christ’. Admittedly, most cardinals, on being elected to the Papacy, do choose a new name as a sign of their new life. The Conclave of 1471, at which he was elected, started on 6 August, which just happens to be the Feast of St Sixtus – hence his chosen name. But that doesn’t explain why his nephew, Julius II, commissioned this painting for a distant city. However, in 1512 the warrior Pope had captured the city of Piacenza and absorbed it into the Papal States. This made up in some way for the loss, the previous year, of Bologna, an the event which he mourned by refusing to shave. That’s how he got the beard with which we are familiar from Raphael’s innovative and influential portrait. Indeed, he looked more than a little like Raphael’s image of the 3rd Century martyr St Sixtus, who is indicating us. But then, that figure could feasibly also represent Julius II, the donor, showing Jesus the new city he has captured for God… It is also relevant that Piacenza had a church dedicated to St Sixtus, which boasted relics of the man himself, as well as some of St Barbara, which is why they are the saints featured in the painting. And as if this wasn’t enough, Julius was all too aware that he owed everything to his uncle, and did everything he could to commemorate him, and thus, the della Rovere family from which they both came.
The painting stayed in its intended location in Piacenza until 1754, when it was bought by Elector Frederick Augustus II of Saxony (also known as Augustus III of Poland) – the avid collector who amassed new fewer than 157 pastels by Rosalba Carriera – from which point on it became, for the Germans, the most perfect painting ever created. Among others, it was praised by Winckelmann, Goethe, Nietsche and Thomas Mann. And there is a whole subsequent history to go into, not to mention the peculiar presence of the charmed and charming angels all over Italy – but I really don’t have time to go into all of that right now. However, looking at that drawing again has made me realise that I will have to add another slide (or two) to tomorrow’s talk. I’m sorry, I won’t have time to write a short one.