What can he teach women today?
Are harmony, serenity and obedience still considered qualities in the modern woman? Whether in the home or the office, our era seems to urge women towards self-assertion and active multi-tasking rather than contemplation and quiescence. It should not surprise us, then, that today the Madonnas of Raphael Sanzio, once coveted for every home or altar during the Renaissance, have fallen from favour, yielding to contemporary models of womanhood.
Current fashions aside, the captivating style of Raphael still forces viewers to pause and reckon with his insight that the Mother of God holds valuable lessons for all women of every age.
Despite his untimely death at the age of 37 in 1520, Raphael left a legacy of Marian images from meditative domestic works to grand altarpieces. In them his attention was invariably focused on her inner beauty over her outer actions.
Mary gave Christ His human nature and brought him into the world for mankind. Thus Raphael's most beautiful devotional Madonnas are cast in gentle landscape settings: His Belle Jardiniere (today at the Louvre) places the Blessed Virgin, along with the infants Christ and St John, amid the soft hills of the Tuscan landscape. The figures, compact yet voluminous, dominate the space, but a still-life of greenery flourishes around their feet. The head and shoulders of the Virgin are framed by the blue sky and delicate clouds, and her skin glows with heavenly light. The hills mirror the curve of her shoulders, making a perfect fit. The slight rustle of her veil and the billow of her robe serve to highlight the church structure to her right. Here, and many times over, Raphael depicted Mary as the portal of Grace: Mother of both Christ and His body, the Church.
Raphael was not wedded to the natural, however. He was equally at home with transporting Mary out of the earthly sphere into the realm of apparition. In his Sistine Madonna (now in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie), he forayed into new iconography. Parted curtains reveal the Madonna and Child floating in midair over a parapet. Billowing clouds seems to support her feet, while the light discloses the forms of cherubim amidst the mist that envelops her. St Barbara looks indulgently down towards two putti posing under Mary's feet, while Pope St Sixtus directs Mary's attention towards our petitions. The Blessed Virgin, however, gazes out towards the viewer, serene and reassuring, offering hope. Her easy grace is the fruit of the artist's tireless study and meditation on Mary as intercessor.
While Raphael is best known for depicting the peaceful ease of Mary's motherhood, he also tackled the most painful moments of her life. In The Entombment, the 23-year-old painter broke with tradition by separating Mother and Son, placing them at opposite sides of the panel. Yet even when distanced from Jesus, Mary closes the space through her empathy. As the head of Christ falls backwards lifelessly, so Mary crumples in grief, her shoulder forward, neck arched. They mirror each other across the divide creating a bond as tight and intimate as physical contact.
With all his experimentation in art — whether inspired by Leonardo's dynamic relationships between figures or the sculptural torsions of Michelangelo — Raphael never lost sight of his own particular aim to reinforce the union of the Blessed Mother and her Son.
Like the soothing prayers of the Rosary, Raphael's Madonnas allow viewers to ponder joy, sorrow or exaltation while sharing the profound serenity of the handmaiden of the Lord. Perhaps between bringing home the bacon and taking the kids to soccer practice, today's women would still benefit from the timeless ideal offered by Raphael.