Some works, like Sistine Madonna, become famous paintings for all the wrong reasons (or at least some unimpressive ones).  By some accounts (including that of Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), Sistine Madonna is the best of Raphael paintings.

Its fame comes from the two mischevious putti with tousled hair at the bottom of the painting.  They’ve appeared on as many t-shirts and coffee mugs as Mona Lisa!

Raphael.  Sistine Madonna, 1513.  Oil on canvas, 8′ 8 1/2″ x 6′ 5″.  Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.

That aside, I believe that Sistine Madonna is one of the best paintings in the European history of painting.

But a bit of biography about Raphael, born Raffaello Sanzio (anglicized to “Raphael”).

Raphael (1483 – 1520) was born in Urbino and received his first painting instruction from his father.  Although Giorgio Vasari claimed his father was a Renaissance painter of little skill, that couldn’t have been totally true –  Raphael was acknowledged as a significant talent when he was just 17.

He then studied in the studio of Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino (c. 1450 – 1523), and so completely adopted his teacher’s style that it has been sometimes difficult to differentiate Perugino frrom Raphael paintings.  In about 1505, Raphael, then 22, traveled to Florence to see the highly acclaimed works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.  Because these two

Raphael.  Self-Portrait, 1509.  Oil on wood, 45 by 35 cm.  Uffizi, Florence. 

Renaissance artists were not completing works and were available to only a few private citizens anyway, Raphael rapidly established a clientele.  Raphael paintings were equally in demand as he was acknowledged as an equally competent High Renaissance painter.

Raphael was then called to Rome in 1508 by Pope Julius II, at the recommendation of the pioneer of the High Renaissance style in architecture, Donato Bramante.  Raphael spent the last twelve years of his brief life in Rome.

Sistine Madonna is likely named after Saint Sixtus II, who is kneeling to the right of the Virgin and who was the patron of the Rovere family of Pope Julius II. The Pope died in 1513, the same year Sistine Madonna was commissioned.

St. Sixtus’ cope (liturgical vestment) is embroidered with oak leaves, a symbol of the Rovere family.  To the Virgin’s left kneels Saint Barbara, the patron saint of the hour of death, who is eyeing the putti resting atop the coffin.  The papal tiara sits there as well.  In the background, one can vaguely discern crowds of angels’ faces.

There are some notable formal elements:

  • look how the Virgin’s left hand clasps the Child’s right thigh to complete a circle formed with her billowing headress;
  • the pyramidal composition – derived from Leonardo – of the Virgin at the apex and the two saints, along with the putti, at the base.

At 8′ 8 1/2″ tall, this Raphael painting is imposing.

Perhaps the true test of a masterpiece is an enduring allure over time.  Sistine Madonna scores here, too.  None of than the legendary Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) was smitten by this work, saying:

What beauty, innocence and sadness in that heavenly countenance, what humility and suffering in those eyes.  Among the ancient Greeks the powers of the divine were expressed in the marvellous Venus de Milo; the Italians, however, brought forth the true Mother of God – the Sistine Madonna.”

It’s no wonder that Raphael paintings earned him the moniker “prince of painters”, and that Sistine Madonna remains one of his most revered and famous paintings.