Maria Full of Grace
Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (c.1512-14) is housed in the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden which I am fortunate enough to visit on a regular basis. This painting is so extraordinary that the other masterpieces in the museum appear insignificant in comparison. One can bask in the warmth that this painting exudes. Its colours and hues are rich and warm and at the same time subtle. Raphael excelled at depicting beautiful, innocent, and soft-featured women – but this representation of Mary (debatably) surpasses all of his others in that she truly seems to embody grace itself. With her slightly down turned eyes, some feel that she is sorrowful or troubled. Perhaps she is a little, but I did not have that impression at all when I first laid eyes upon this painting. To me it seems that Raphael has portrayed her as quietly powerful, compassionate, divine and beyond loveliness. It is also said that Jesus looks terror stricken. I believe that it may be simply that many artists, especially before and during the Renaissance did not depict babies as successfully as they depicted adults, making them look too grown-up and a little disproportionate.
The composition itself achieves a perfect balance and has been designed to resemble a stage set – possibly some illusion to the universe being a play. The two putti (cherubs) leaning on the ledge at the bottom of the canvas lend the painting such a humorous touch thus seeming to contradict what some scholars say is a melancholic image. However, the two figures standing on either side of the Madonna did come to sticky endings; the female is Saint Barbara who was killed by her father in the 3rd century AD for converting to Christianity; the male figure is Pope Sixtus II who died a martyr. Here St. Barbara is portrayed as queenly and serene whilst Sixtus points towards the viewer. Behind Mary, many small cherub faces may be seen in the clouds.
This large painting was made to hang above an altar in a church belonging to Benedictine monks in Piacenza. In 1754 it was bought from the monks by August III, ruler of Saxony and King of Poland and has belonged to Dresden ever since.
The pictures below show the beautiful Zwinger palace which houses the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister.