Raphael The Small Cowper Madonna, c. 1505 Oil on panel, 59.5 x 44 cm (23 7/16 x 17 5/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Widener Collection Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art
Perugino Madonna and Child, c. 1500 Oil on panel, 70.2 x 50 cm (27 5/8 x 19 11/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Samuel H. Kress Collection Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art
Raphael’s Small Cowper Madonna mirrors the style and mood of those from Perugino’s shop. But compare these two Madonnas. While the Virgins share a graceful modesty and wistful expressions, the two paintings differ compositionally. Raphael’s figures are tied by interlocking gestures and unified by their shared gaze to a vision of the child’s future. By contrast, Perugino’s recycling of stock figures from workshop repertoire sometimes resulted in figures that are unrelated or gestures that are unexplained by the story being told. Was the child here meant to hold something, as he perhaps did in another painting? Unlike Raphael’s mother and child, who form a seamless unit, Perugino’s seem to exist in separate worlds.
After studying with his father in Urbino and working in the busy shop of Perugino, Raphael moved to Florence. During his few years there, between 1504 and 1508, he is known to have painted at least seventeen small devotional panels of the Virgin and Child. He likely made most for an avid market, but it appears that Raphael had more than a commercial interest in the image. He gave three—one as a wedding present—to friends. (Paintings of the Virgin and Child were popular wedding gifts.) He also made drawings of the Mother and Child that he never translated in paint; they seem, instead, to be personal explorations. From Raphael’s entire brief career some thirty-four paintings of the Virgin and Child survive. The artist’s mastery developed as he absorbed the lessons of not only his first teachers but also Leonardo and Michelangelo and the ancient art he saw in Rome. The grace of Raphael’s Madonna paintings—their idealized beauty and tender sentiment—came into harmony with their subtly constructed meaning.
This tiny panel (measuring only 9 inches across) shows the Virgin and Child in a bedroom—the curtain of a bed appears behind her. In all likelihood the owner, possibly sitting in her own bedroom, would have held the panel in her hand as she contemplated it and made her devotions. Linking the two figures are the flowers they pass between them—pinks, which because they were symbols of marriage, point to the Virgin as not only the mother but also the bride of Christ.
With the beginning of the sixteenth century, the popularity of the type of Virgin and Child paintings explored here began to wane. They no longer dominate the inventories; new religious themes proliferated. While the old formulas continued to attract patrons and artists, for many, especially those, like Raphael, who moved in sophisticated humanist circles, traditional piety and the conventional images that served it became less satisfying personally, intellectually, and emotionally. The source of authority in religious art—what made an image awe-inspiring—was shifting away from the subject depicted and the viewer’s devotion to it. Instead, new value was given to the invention and talent of the artist, especially his (rarely her) ability to elicit and elucidate religious (or any other) sentiment. For some patrons, what counted most was simply aesthetics. In 1524, Federico Gonzaga asked Baldassare Castiglione to acquire a work by Raphael’s one-time assistant Sebastiano del Piombo. The subject was immaterial “so long as it is not about saints, but rather something lovely and beautiful to look at.”21
The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna
Raphael The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna, 1508 Oil on panel, 80.7 x 57.5 cm (31 3/4 x 22 5/8 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art
This may be the last work Raphael painted in Florence before departing for Rome. Superficially perhaps, it seems close to Perugino’s Madonna, yet it is more complex even than Raphael’s own Small Cowper Madonnamade only a few years before. Here the child tugs at his mother’s bodice, wanting to nurse. (Raphael’s signature appears in the gold embroidery at her neckline.) The two figures are closely related, physically and psychologically, through their poses and intimate action. Their large bodies nearly fill the frame, concentrating the viewer’s attention on them. Although they are depicted in a tender, maternal moment, their size imparts monumentality and gravity. The infant has imposing presence despite his playfulness. Notice, too, a softening of Raphael’s palette to more muted tones.
The Alba Madonna
Raphael The Alba Madonna, c. 1510 Oil on panel transferred to canvas, diameter 94.5 cm (37 3/16 in.) National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Andrew W. Mellon Collection Image courtesy of the Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art
The round format, called a tondo, was popular in Florence, particularly for images of the Virgin and Child, yet this picture, which Raphael made in Rome, has more grandeur—greater seriousness—than his intimate Florentine Madonnas. Raphael’s experience with the art of Rome’s ancient past (see Recovering the Golden Age) imparted a calm dignity and new gravitas to his art. The Virgin’s pose resembles a work of classical sculpture, and she no longer wears contemporary dress but rather the robes of a Roman matron. Her sandal is based on those worn by the Apollo Belvedere, a famed ancient sculpture in the papal collection. (The pope would, in fact, make Raphael keeper of antiquities, and the artist would be buried in the Pantheon.)