Great Works: The Ansidei Madonna 1505 (216.8cm by 147.6cm), Raphael
National Gallery, London
Friday 01 July 2011
Sweetness, harmoniousness, grace. These qualities are not admired as they once were. Imagine them being used as words of praise for a work made in 2011. Are the times out of joint? Discuss. Raphael possessed all these attributes, in varying degrees, in abundance. This early altarpiece was commissioned for a family chapel, and the painting itself simulates a chapel-like space. Its effect is extraordinarily calculated. Raphael knew exactly where he wanted the light to fall, how he wanted to dispose the figures about the space. It is, in short, full of intense geometrical calculation. The arrangement of the figures – with the Mother of God and the chubby babe in the central niche, and then, to left and right, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas of Bari – feels almost inevitable.
This painting would have been called an example of a sacra conversazione, and yet what is remarkable is that there is no interaction whatsoever between these players. Saint John, extraordinarily youthful and handsome, right leg twisted out in a balletic pose, peers up towards the Latin description of Mary, and, without even looking in his direction, points with crooked finger towards the baby. Mary is intent upon the book that she is holding open for the child's edification – there are many flexed, vigorous fingers in this painting. Saint Nicholas too, utterly self-absorbed, peers down at a sacred text. Everyone seems to be looking at the world through an inward eye – "which is the bliss of solitude", Wordsworth would have continued, had he just been invited to finish the quotation from what was once every schoolchild's best remembered poem.
The painting possesses a remarkable poise, as if it circles about its own still point. There is a Pygmalion effect at work here too, which adds to our sense of the miraculous. Except that the miracle of Pygmalion is reversed. We feel that Mary, posed as she is inside that niche – it looks, when examined close up, slightly sticky, as if it were made from well-sucked toffee – ought to be fashioned from marble. That's what figures in niches are often made from. This marble is alive. It is human flesh plus (in so far as it was recently superhumanly impregnated), and sumptuously adorned. As is John the Baptist, whose camel-hair coat is clearly visible beneath the costly sweep of his fabrics. (That coat is a welcome nod in the direction of poverty and desert thirst.)
These beings may not be present to each other – they do seem somewhat absent in the body – yet, paradoxically, they also manage to occupy this fairly narrow space powerfully and fully. Physically, they are fully grounded in their earthliness. And yet all is light and airiness too. Light dances in from the window space, which frames a view across Raphael's Umbrian countryside. Light also comes in from somewhere above, at the front.
That opening out to the air behind the Virgin and Child in their niche seems odd – imagine some bemused straw-chewer looking in from the fields, and seeing the unvarnished back of it.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Trained by the painter Perugino, Raphael of Urbino (1483-1520) was Michelangelo's greatest rival, and the older man was intensely jealous of his sweeter-natured and more diplomatic younger rival. Like Michelangelo, Raphael had an extraordinary range of gifts – he was architect, interior decorator, painter and town planner. He died of a fever at an early age. Michelangelo outlived him by nearly five decades, and contrived to make it impossible for Raphael's great cycle of tapestries to be shown as intended in the Sistine Chapel.
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression
tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I've been called an abusive and dangerous parent, when all I did was listen to my transgender child
- 2 Why this father didn’t hide his daughter’s heroin overdose in her obituary
- 3 Smartphones are making children borderline autistic, says psychiatrist
- 4 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 5 Teaching profession headed for crisis as numbers continue to drop and working lives become 'unbearable'
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins
Sherlock series 4: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have to be 'persuaded' to return, says Steven Moffat
London Marathon: Best running songs from Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar to 'Uptown Funk'
A victory for gender equality on the high seas
Oldest footage of London landmarks released
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Rupert Murdoch berated Sun journalists for not doing enough to attack Ed Miliband and stop him winning the general election