Raphael on Christ

“The Washington Post” had a rather remarkable feature, in a special Museums insert, on this painting, the Alba Madonna by Raphael. Painted around 1508 and currently in D.C.’s National Gallery, it’s considered the high point of Renaissance art and one of the greatest paintings ever made. But why? The Post asked some art historians, and two of them zeroed in on Raphael’s portrayal of Christ.

From Leo Steinberg:

This is the action: The little Saint John is presenting the cross to the Christ child, as if to remind him of what the purpose of his life is. The child does not need to be reminded: He seizes the cross, almost triumphantly. It’s done as if in play, and that’s the genius of Raphael: to disguise the theology under the aspect of infant play. And the Virgin interrupts her reading, in which all of this is foretold — she’s not reading the latest bestseller, she’s reading the Book of Isaiah. And then, gently extending her right hand toward Saint John, she thinks, “Not yet.”

Heaven has come down to earth. This is very clearly spelled out in the Alba Madonna: You have the blue sky, the landscape washed by that same blue, and no other blue in that picture but in the Virgin’s dress.

From Alexander Nagel (Gopnik is the interviewer):

On the one hand, there seems to be an emphasis on a single moment, and on the other hand an emphasis on things enduring through time.

There is the sense that John’s head has just looked up, that Christ’s head has just turned, that the Virgin has come to attention, and that all of them are magnetized for a second by the cross that Christ has grasped. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine it as a moment in any obvious sequential drama: the whole thing seems poised and static.

And that contrast seems to me to be reflected in the composition of the picture. In how the figures represent a highly dynamic group distributed in space and involving quite a bit of twisting and turning, and yet they also create a kind of flat, orderly hexagon on the surface. . . .

So in both the treatment of the narrative moment and the structure of the composition, a great deal of motion and complexity is reconciled with something very stable and unchanging.

This duality in the painting also produces a particular kind of theological emphasis. It advances the notion that the contingent, the earthly, the episodic, is also part of a larger, timeless plan. All the separate little episodes of history — a child dandled by his mother in a meadow, for instance, as she puts down her book — look to us like they’ve happened in an almost accidental way, but this painting reveals that they’re all part of God’s supratemporal plan.

GOPNIK: After all, why is there a cross in this scene, so many years before Christ’s Crucifixion? The object is almost a toy, two flimsy reeds lashed together by a little shepherd boy named John. Yet even as Jesus reaches for that toy, the part above his fingers assumes the proportions of the crossed beams he will be nailed to — at that moment, the reeds become the cross of the crucifixion.

NAGEL: Yes, The cross here can exist as a symbol of the Crucifixion before the actual event of the Crucifixion because the divine plan cuts through mere chronology.

This relationship between history and the divine scheme is a persistent, profound issue in Christian theology. And in this painting a new set of artistic problems — which have to do with balancing a detailed description of nature and human bodies with a larger sense of compositional and structural order — have created new insights into it.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Bruce

    Amazing. The connection of the “blue of heaven” with the clothing of Mary is something I wouldn’t have connected. And the look she appears to be giving that little cross! “Not yet,” indeed. If anything it reinforces the very human and motherly aspect of Mary, not as Theotokos, but as a woman saying to The Future: “This is MY time! Your time will come.”

  • Kelly

    I was fortunate enough to see this in person over the summer. It’s one of my favorites… I’ve meant to make a copy for ages.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Thanks for blogging this. Although it seems that folks are less likely to comment on artistic stuff like this, I would like to see more of this on your blog. It makes me think and can give more ideas as to how Christians can engage today’s culture.

    I like how this engages the mystery and our human imagination regarding Christ’s incarnation and God’s plan centered in the cross.

  • WebMonk

    A couple of comments I don’t quite ‘get’. Like Mary’s expression saying “Not yet.” Little things like that make me a bit cautious about how much detailed description can be read into a painting as being intended by the artist. Ditto for the “triumphant” grasping.

    I would have said that Mary’s view was more a sadness to see what was coming to her beloved son. Christ’s expression is pretty inscrutable to me, but I don’t see “triumphant” in there.

    It is indeed magnificent. I sort of see the Mona Lisa’s smile in many of the aspects – can’t quite see exactly what’s going on behind the looks and expressions, but there is a great deal going on nonetheless. Along with the incredible composure and skill of the painting, that’s what strikes me most about it.

  • The Jones

    Wow, Kudos to the post for a good story. Finally, something from a newspaper that is actually substantive.

  • Neb

    Dr. Veith’s WORLD magazine articles and books do a great job of helping the Christian handle the world. We are blessed to have his insight.

    This is a beautiful painting. Another source with great artwork is the Good News Magazine put out the by Lutheran Heritage Foundation.

    I’m amazed by talented artists who can share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this manner

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Neb, Amen to the Good News plug – one of my favorite tools for catechesis besides Dr. Luther’s small catechism.

  • Gulliver

    to #4. I have spoken similar arguments to a art historian friend, that how do we know what was in the mind of the artist so as to interpret the painting this way. The answer is that these painters were steeped in iconographic images that represented ideas on more than one level.
    For example, Raphiel teaches John’s words “He must increase and I decrease” by having the 6-month older John kneel before Jesus. Both boys are grasping the cross. One is by faith in the Messiah, the other by obedience to God’s will. The Christian art historian could very likely find many more symbols and theological representations which were purposefully included in the painting.

  • WebMonk

    Gulliver, I agree with what you wrote, and especially that with the great masters (like Raphael), by knowing their focus, time period, goal, and topic of the painting, we can know very specifically what was intended by the artist.

    It was more Steinberg’s specific statement that I question, precisely because it doesn’t seem to draw on any specific reason other than his personal impression of the painting.

    As you mentioned, there are many, many layers of meaning that are quite definitely intended in the Alba Madonna, and we know that because of the history, time, topic, artist, etc.

    I think people apply the personal impressions that modern art encourages, to older art which was trying to convey a very specific set of ideas and not trying to encourage individual impressions. The “not yet” and “triumphant” phrases struck me as applying modern, personal impressions to art which was very definitely NOT intending to be subjective in its message.

  • john

    The ‘little Saint John’ is the Baptist, isn’t he? Jesus’ cousin and presumably childhood friend?

    Another Raphael here:

    http://www.mortalresurrection.com/2009/04/24/a-difference-of-persepctive/


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