Sistine Madonna | Raphael | 1514
Only the most excellent artists are honored to be recognized only by their first name. And so history knows characters like Michelangelo, Titian, Leonardo and, of course, Raphael.
Raffaello Sanzio is born in Urbino, a city in the central Italy that, although miniscule, in times of the renaissance was known for being the artistic centre of the country. He is educated by the artist Pietro Perugino, who considers Raphael fully trained at the age of 18, giving him the title of “master”.
Just for information, Raphael’s ouvre is divided in 3 periods: the first of his years in Umbria, the second of his work in Florence and, the last, his more productive and hectic period: the twelve years he spends in Rome working for the Church.
After becoming famous throughout Italy, in 1508 Raphael is invited to Rome by Pope Julius II to paint frescoes in his private library in the Vatican Palace. On the contrary of Michelangelo, who had spent months wondering in Rome until he was first commissioned for a painting, Raphael gets to the city and immediately starts working. You can imagine that, Michelangelo, before even met him, already hate his rival and, some time after, he would accuse him of conspiracy and plagiarizing.
But this is anecdotic. Raphael starts with his work in the pope’s library and after that he is commended with what everyone knows as the “Raphael rooms” or stanze Raffaello.
In 1513, the artist gets a requests from the Benedictine monks to paint a frescoe over the altar of Saint Sixtus Church, with the condition that the painting must include the figures of St. Sixtus, seventh pope of the catholic church; and Saint Barbara, virgin and martyr for defending her beliefs. Sistine Madonna will be the result of this commission and, also, it is going to be the last work that Raphael would end with his own hands.
Despite the name of the painting, the madonna in the painting seems almost indifferent for the common spectator. Although there are no doubts about the beauty of the character, or the exquisite technique, it is really the less curious figure of all. If it wasn’t for the concerned look, which many interpret as a prophetic disturbance for the crucifixión of her son, the madonna is… expected. To her left, we see Saint Sixtus, pointing with his hands towards the spectator. Let us remember that this frescoe was supposed to be placed above the altar of a church in which, symbolically, Saint Sixtus would be pointing the congregation, in an attitude that seems to ask the madonna for intercession for them. In the lower left corner, almost falling from the canvas, we notice the papal tiara left aside, which is supposed to illustrate the humbleness of the saint who rejects a symbol of power. To the right, we see Saint Barbara who, kneeled down, checks the most beloved characters of the painting: the cherubs in the lower area. Their image would be repeatedly printed in products as sweet as Saint Valentine’s cards as well as in more mundane products such as condoms, but something is undoubtedly: the image of the cherubs is already imprinted in the retina of all the inhabitants of the planet. About them, there are two versions of why Raphael painted them with their dreamy look towards the sky. One version says that Raphael was inspired by two boys he saw in the street begging for food; but the other version, maybe more acceptable, says that the model who posed for the figure of Saint Barbara had two sons that wondered the artist’s studio while her mother was working. The children, completely bored of seeing his mother standing still for long periods of time, would have server Raphael as inspiration for the expression in the cherub’s faces.
Maybe in all of these curiosities, or little details, we can see the true talent of the artist as a creative individual beyond the technique.