Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), The Marriage of the Virgin, 1504, oil on wood, 170 cm x 117 cm, Milan, Italy, Pinacoteca di Brera.
The first thing that strikes us in this masterful work by a young Raphael is the building in the background. It is quite elegant, with a central plan, and has a portico all around it and a dome. The two opposite doors are open and therefore allow our eye to follow the landscape and the sky beyond the building. Its shape seems circular, even though it is actually built with 16 sides. We can also see a polygonal staircase all around the building, and a foreshortened squared floor.
The real focus of the painting is therefore this magnificent Renaissance architecture, which gradually leads us to the scene we can see in the foreground. It is a wedding: the priest is in the centre, the bride and groom on his right and left, and other elegantly dressed characters on the bride and groom's sides. It is a special wedding; we can tell from the young men on the right side. Each of them holds a rod. One is even breaking it, in the foreground on the right. The explanation can be found in the Apocryphal Gospels, in the part about Mary's marriage. At the time of the wedding, the priests of the Temple - where Mary, according to tradition, had grown up after being offered to the Lord by her parents – chose randomly the tribe of Judas and asked all the suitors to bring a rod to be deposited one night in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred area. God's will manifested in that while Joseph “stretched out his hand to take his rod, suddenly a dove came out the top of it, whiter than snow, extremely beautiful” (Apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, VIII, 75). A variation, also represented here by Raphael, was the flowering of the rod itself (Giotto, in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, represented the flowering rod from which the dove comes out), which echoes a biblical episode (Book of Numbers 17:16-26), about the flowering of Aaron's rod.
The wedding of Mary and Joseph are therefore the subject of this magnificent painting, which Raphael, although very young, wanted to sign and date (the name “RAPHAEL URBINAS” appears in the architrave of the building’s side facing us, whereas the year “MDIII” is on the sides of the arch below). After all, this painting was commissioned by an important family that wanted to give prestige to the altar of St Joseph in the Church of San Francesco in Città di Castello (Perugia, Italy).
The grace of the painting is all played out in the balance between the background and the foreground, between the bright green landscape and the geometric floor that surrounds the entire base of the building. Some small figures inserted here and there in the background are dealing with something else, they are not involved in the wedding but rather serve to give depth and realism to the scene. Another aspect that strikes us is the apparent seriousness of the protagonists in the foreground. There’s no joy in them, and the very faces of Mary and Joseph seem passionless. This choice seems to direct our focus on the sacredness of the moment: the marriage of the Virgin, accompanied by the prodigy of the flowering of Joseph's rod, is a fundamental passage in the history of salvation, because from that union the human story of Jesus, the Son of God, will derive.
The two hands joining together, the ring of promise, God's blessing from the officiating priest (how can we fail to notice the elegance of his vestment?): this painting leads us to a prayer for couples who are united in Christian marriage:
May come down, O Lord, on the bride and groom (N. and N.),
the richness of your blessings
and the power of your Holy Spirit,
may inflame their hearts from above,
so that in the mutual gift of love
they gladden their family and the ecclesial community with children.
May they praise you, Lord, in joy,
seek you out in suffering;
enjoy your support in fatigue
and your comfort in need.
May they pray you in the holy assembly,
and be your witnesses in the world.
May they live long in prosperity and peace
and, with all the friends around them now,
come to the happiness of your kingdom.