Before we start, take a look at the painting. What do you see? Are you actually a bit disinclined to give it too much attention as it is ‘yet another Madonna and child’?

I suppose the greetings card industry is to blame but more than once when I have asked someone to name me a Raphael painting or image they know, it is the two cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna that have come up. And you have to admit, they are very cute. Quietly balanced on the bottom of the painting, their toes somewhere out of sight in the clouds, looking up at the baby Jesus in his mother’s arms. Whereas the two cherubs – or indeed putti to use their correct name – seem very relaxed, the baby Jesus is an odd mix of composed and wriggling, comfortable and uncomfortable. His mother’s face too is not one of unbridled joy but one of recognition of her son’s destiny – and it is almost as if Raphael has painted her at the moment of reluctantly handing her new child to us, to humanity, to his destiny – which is the cross.

It’s a strange painting though: why the drawn-back curtains. Is Raphael emphasising the drama of the situation by making seem as if it were on a stage? Why then the floor of clouds? And look behind the Madonna – on one side a glimpse of a town, but where and why? Why so little of it that it permits no identification? And predominantly on the other side, the endless baby faces…a host of angels I assume? At what point is Raphael the storyteller, the employed craftsmen, simply showing off his abilities by the faces, the curtains, the clouds, the bodies, the gestures?

The model for the Madonna is assumed to be Raphael’s long-term mistress Margarita Luti or ‘La Fornarina’ (“the baker’s daughter”). Her face appears in a number of his works. She may have been his perfect model but whether her position in Raphael’s life made her the perfect Madonna is hard to say. No-one seems to have minded though. Whether she had to stand holding someone’s baby is also hard to say but it seems unlikely; Raphael would probably have used drawings he had made of local children for that. What would Margarita have thought of how the centuries that followed her life hailed this painting as the ultimate mother and child? What would she and Raphael have thought that the two seemingly inconspicuous little cherubs have now become more famous than the central characters of Madonna and child, flanked by saints Sixtus and Barbara? The altarpiece was commissioned for the Piacenza monastery of San Sisto (hence the painting’s name – it is not a painting that was done for the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican): what did indeed the monks think when it was finished and they first saw it?

Look again at the painting: now you know a little more about it, isn’t it more powerful, more interesting and certainly more beautiful? A real woman – we may even know her name – stood for the artist Raphael. Some even claim she and Raphael were secretly married and that, after she was turned away following his death, she entered a convent. This perhaps reminds us that the Madonna, the baby Jesus and the saints were real people too and it makes their journey through life and death all the more powerful to the monks of San Sisto and to us now. The painting is now in Dresden and has been since 1754 (when an absolute fortune was paid for it). Other than a brief period in Russia during and after the war, it has been in the remarkable Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden – a perfect city to consider the nature of resurrection.

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Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. The three masters of the Renaissance. Of these three great artists, I have met those who are rather dismissive of Raphael, considering him a painter of confectionary, rather uninteresting Madonnas and the baby Jesus. Once again, I urge people to stop and look anew. There are plenty of sound reasons why Raphael is held in the same esteem as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarotti – and the Alba Madonna is absolutely one of them. It is a staggeringly beautiful painting and fully deserves to be this week’s subject.

This relationship of Mary and her son had not really been a subject in art until the Byzantine period when it moved centre stage. To begin with, Mary was most often enthroned and imperial. But by the 14th century the relationship had become much more intimate. In the same way that Leonardo’s portraits of Christ are extraordinarily human, so are Raphael’s of the mother. The portrayal of the Madonna (Italian for ‘my lady’, a sign of respect or rank) increasingly combined the spiritual with the temporal. This devotion to Mary reached a peak by the 16th century and such paintings had a vibrant market – small pieces for private worship and larger pieces for public display. Raphael, like virtually all artists, followed the market and at this time was both working for the Pope and for private patrons. This painting was commissioned by one such patron, Paolo Giovio, Bishop of Nocera (and eventually also the earliest biographer of Raphael).

What we see in the painting is perhaps the greatest Madonna and Child ever painted. A young mother seated casually against a tree stump in a calm landscape. One child (Jesus) on her lap, another (his cousin John the Baptist) nearby. It feels real, it feels familiar. Think how hard it must be to conjure up this scene of such three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional canvas. Note the limbs moving forwards and backwards in space which the author Konrad Oberhauber describes thus: ‘the children are inserted into the Virgin’s lap and gesture as if in a lazy hollow… Everything flows along swinging curves, uniting the group within itself and relative to the round frame’.

The geometry is arresting. Regard the rectangle, then the triangle, the horizon more or less cutting the painting in half, and then all of it in a perfect circle. One more shape within the picture is critical: the cross that John the Baptist is passing to Jesus – foretelling his fate three decades into the future.

The location is important – landscapes were another subject that was attracting additional interest (think again of Leonardo’s works) but also the garden had always occupied a key role – based on the Garden of Eden which was both paradise and the root of mankind’s fall from grace. It was also of course something artists liked to tackle – the detail of plants, flowers and trees were an opportunity to show off. Each may have had symbolic connotation and so on but artists had also to be self-publicists. Here is a wonderful example of how piety and devotion can be approached through beauty but also a wonderful example of a commercial artist demonstrating to both his patron and the outside world that his talents were of the highest quality. The brushwork alone is breath-taking.

This painting is one of the many, many treasures at the glorious National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. It is absolutely worth a visit.

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