Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 242: The Alba Madonna, by Raphael

Date: 19-12-2004
Owning Institution:
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: Renaissance

To mark the Sunday before Christmas Day, this week’s picture is a beautiful circular painting of the Virgin and Child with St John by the Renaissance master Raphael – a work commonly known as the Alba Madonna. The painting is owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington but is currently on display at the National Gallery in London, as part of “Raphael: From Urbino to Rome”, an engrossing exhibition which charts the young painter’s precocious charge from Umbrian obscurity into the limelight of papal Rome.
The picture is undated but most art historians believe that Raphael painted it sometime between 1509 and 1511, when he was also at work on his frescoes of The School of Athens and The Disputa for the Stanza della Segnatura, Pope Julius II’s library in the Vatican apartments. The Alba Madonna is a breathtakingly beautiful work of art, all the more impressive since recent restoration work brought back the original, delicate pastel colours used by the artist, and revealed the subtle depth and brilliancy of the landscape background. The buildings on the hilltop at the right-hand edge of the composition are caught by a raking light and have been misted by varying degrees of haze to create the illusion of relative distance from the eye – a technique known as aerial perspective. The far mountains are similarly hazed by distance to a rich azure, while the sky above varies in colour from Wedgewood blue, at its apex, to a cool milky-white on the horizon. This range of colours is repeated in the folds and shadows of the Madonna’s blue robes, which at once echo and animate the circular shape of the composition. A monumental, comforting figure, clothed in robes that look as if woven from a piece of fallen sky, she seems like a world unto herself. Although she sits on the ground, which links her iconographically to the tradition of the Madonna of Humility, her statuesque grandeur calls to mind earlier Renaissance images of the Madonna della Misericordia – images of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven and protectress of all humanity. The faintest trace of archaism survives, in Raphael’s painting technique, in the almost imperceptibly delicate gold halo inscribed into the air above her head.
The circular devotional painting, known as a tondo, first came into vogue in Florence in the fifteenth century, soon becoming popular elsewhere, and most examples were painted between about 1580 and 1515. The majority were private devotional works created for the contemplation of rich mercahnts and bankers and most depict the Madonna with Child – a subject that was particularly close to the hearts of mercantile Renaissance men, who placed a great deal of emphasis on the importance of early education and the careful nurturing of the young. The use of the distinctive form of the tondo also reflected a surge of interest, among learned Christian humanist authors, in the mystical significance of certain geometrical shapes, above all the circle – thought since antiquity to embody eternity and heavenly perfection. This strain of theological-geometrical mysticism also accounts for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of Vitruvian Man – the image of man, created in the likeness of God, inscribed within a sphere – and explains why Raphael’s contemporary, the architect Bramante, designed a great domed crossing for the new St Peter’s, which, seen in groundplan, was to resemble a perfect circle within a perfect square.
The circle also symbolised the Christian cosmic cycle of birth, death and resurrection and that is an important part of its meaning in the picture reproduced here. Just as the twined figures of the Madonna and Child and St John echo the forms of the circle that contains them, so Raphael’s painting contains, within it, intimations of the whole Christian story. Jesus shows that he accepts his destiny by taking the cross, symbol of his future Passion, which is proffered to him by the Baptist. The Virgin, whose own eyes are fixed on the cross, leans forward to comfort the two boys. Her finger marks a place in the holy book that she holds, presumably at the point in the narrative where the Passion is described, to indicate her foreknowledge of all that will befall her son. The veil wrapped lightly around her arm may have been meant to put viewers in mind of the winding sheets in which Christ would be wrapped at his death. The Madonna leans against a dead tree, which also alludes to Christ’s Passion, while the various plants that the painter has included in the foreground amount to a bouquet of symbols. Several of the plants are traditionally symbolic of the Virgin’s purity and St John has been gathering anenomes, the flower of which was known as the “Easter Flower” or “Flower of Resurrection”, because of its ancient associations with immortality. Death will be defeated by these blessed refugees. The picture presents a moment of absolute, perfect calm so that looking at it is like looking at a recreation of heaven created, miraculously, here on earth.
No one knows for sure who commissioned the painting from Raphael but circumstantial evidence suggests that it may have been painted for Pope Julius II himself (subsequent owners included the Duchess of Alba in Spain, to whom it owes its modern-day title of The Alba Madonna, and the American millionaire Andrew Mellon, who donated it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington). The earliest recorded owner of the work appears to have been a military commander called Giovan Battista Castaldo, who was on the winning side at the Sack of Rome in 1527. An eighteenth-century Italian author is the source for the story, presumably based on local tradition, that Castaldo had stolen it from the sacristy of St Peter’s itself, to which it had been presented by Julius II. This is unverifiable but easy to believe. It makes sense that this most profound, most beautifully composed and most poignant of Raphael’s many depictions of the Madonna and Child should have been painted for his most powerful patron.
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