Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), Sistine Madonna, 1513-14, oil on canvas, 265 cm x 196 cm, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
1 January, Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.
On 6 April 2020 will be the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael, certainly one of the absolute geniuses of the Italian Renaissance. A selection of his works will accompany us during this year, sure that the pinnacles of beauty reached by the painter from Urbino will help our reflections.
Thinking about the first day of the year, dedicated to the Holy Mary Mother of God, this Madonna and Child immediately came to mind. It is called "Sistine" because it was originally placed in the church of San Sisto in Piacenza, Italy. It was probably commissioned by Pope Julius II to honour his uncle, who had been Pope under the name of Sixtus IV from 1471 to 1484. It is no coincidence that the two saints on each side of the Virgin are St. Sixtus II, Pope and martyr of the third century, and St. Barbara, behind whom we can glimpse the tower where she was locked up by her father.
This painting became immediately very famous, both for the simplicity of the subject and for some details that make it unique in the genre of representations of the Virgin. Its fame increased even more when, on 1 March 1754, the work arrived in Dresden, Germany, at the court of August III - elector prince of Saxony and king of Poland - who bought it after two years of negotiations for an exorbitant sum at the time (25,000 Roman scudi).
Let us now focus on the work. A first thing that strikes us is the play of glances: those of the Madonna and Child are directed to us, to whoever observes the painting (it is said that Augustus III had the painting placed in the throne room, moving the very throne so as to be able to have the best view at all times); the gaze of St. Sixtus is turned towards Mary and Jesus, whereas that of St. Barbara is turned downwards, perhaps towards the two little angels who, leaning against the balustrade from which they popped out, seem a little absent-minded.
A second relevant element is the carpet of clouds on which the main characters are standing. The clouds have sufficient consistency to support their weights but at the same time appear truly, uniquely lightweight.
A third element is the green curtain that opens at the top of the painting. It is a very normal curtain: the rail seems to be irregular, the rings of a poor material. The curtain, as well as framing the scene, also gives us the feeling that we are facing a vision: Mary seems to be walking towards us. It is an "epiphany", the manifestation of her motherhood and above all of the son Jesus she is bringing and showing to the world. Even Our Lady's veil and robe, moved by a wind coming from the left, seem to bear witness to the exceptionality of the vision.
A last element to be considered is the two little angels in the lower part of the painting. They are very famous, often reproduced even alone, almost as if Raphael included them just to play or have fun. Yet, for such an important painting - it was commissioned by a Pope! - it is unthinkable that such a unique and rare detail had no meaning. First of all, we can see that they are not the only angels: there are so many of them in the clear sky behind Mary (“Praise God, all his angels, praise him, all his host” - Psalm 148:2). Only the two angels we are looking at are in colour; they are there, but they seem not to take part in the scene. Their reflection seems almost to invite each of us who contemplate the great canvas to realise that, in the face of the event of Christ's Incarnation, the mere thinking and reasoning always presents doubts and perplexity. Only faith allows us to "see" the salvation brought about by the birth of Jesus from Mary, the Virgin Mother of God.
Almighty God, through the virginal motherhood of the Blessed Mary
you offered mankind the treasures of eternal salvation;
grant us to feel that intervenes on our behalf
She who allowed us to welcome the author of life,
Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord!