Great Works: The Ansidei Madonna 1505 (216.8cm by 147.6cm), Raphael

National Gallery, London

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links