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The Alba Madonna (c 1510) by Raphael

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This paper discusses The Alba Madonna (c 1510) by Raphael, giving comparison and similarities to other works of the time and to other works by the same artist.  All opinions given are rationalized.

 Raphael is best known for his Madonnas and for his large figure comparisons in the Vatican in Rome.  His style epitomized the High Renaissance.

This Madonna was commissioned by Paolo Giavio, who was Raphael’s first biographer.  In the picture, a copy of which is attached here, the young boy Jesus has retrieved the Cross from the boy John the Baptist.  The face of the older boy reflects understanding and sadness, and the Madonna has placed a comforting hand upon his shoulder.

 Raphael has been able to stabilize the circular form of the painting with a triangular arrangement of the figures and the strong horizontal line behind them – the composition consists of the river and the trees.

 In the painting the young Jesus forms the centre of the picture, flanked by two people who were to be central figures in his life on earth – John the Baptist and The Virgin Mary, his mother. I think that the fact that he is in the centre is interesting – for he was to become the central part of these people’s lives.  Mary’s compassion and understanding (remember, all had been revealed to her in a dream prior to the birth of Jesus) is reflected in the fact that by touching John comfortingly on the shoulder, she is showing that she understands his pain and worry – both know that Jesus is to have suffering.  The colours are for the most part dark grey, dark blue, and dark red, and the lightest part of the painting is Jesus, and this too helps to draw the viewer’s attention to him, although not dramatically so.  The painting is composite and is brought together nicely by the circular form.

By contrast, the main formal stresses are not circular – the landscape stretches out in a

horizontal fashion, and to balance this are the few plants and flowers.

            There are also a number of striking diagonal’s – the angle of Mary’s leg, the craning degree of her neck and the back of John, all serve to assist with the formation of an enclosed centre.

            The Madonna is an example of the Renaissance “Madonna of Humility” tradition, and is painted in the same kind of way.  But there is also influence of Michelangelo evident here – in particular in the Tondo format which is derived from Michelangelo’s “Holy Family” which had been seen by Raphael in Rome.  In addition, there are similarities with Bellini’s “Madonna of the Meadow” – this too was painted in an open landscape.  These are the only similarities with Bellini though, and the impact of Michelangelo is much more evident.

            This Madonna presents with some similarities and differences to his previous work. Take for example The Small Cowper Madonna (c 1505).  The style and color of the painting are very similar to the Alba Madonna.  The use of color is very similar and this one was also painted with a landscape in the background. But there is no circular shape here – this presents with an open composition, balanced with trees on one side and buildings on the other.  The clarity and crispness of line helps to accentuate the clarity of meaning in the picture.

            It must be borne in mind that this was a time when Leonardo had just completed his Mona Lisa, Fra Bartolemmeo was exhibiting his Last Judgment and Michelangelo had completed his David, and there had been a preliminary unveiling of The Sistine Chapel in 1509.  We can see that Biblical subjects were commonly the subjects of art works of this period.

            One of the most frequently discussed and best loved paintings of the Renaissance was Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna c 1512 – 1514.  Here Raphael has moved away from the circular picture and the landscape, and Jesus is no longer the central figure of the painting.  Where in the Alba Madonna John The Baptist and Mary’s expressions were easy to read, in this Mary and Jesus wear baffling expressions.  We can see the progression – where earlier images had been clear and easy to understand, this was not.


The Alba Madonna, Raphael, The Web Gallery of Art, retrieved 1 May 2005 from the website http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/r/raphael/5roma/1/06alba.html

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