The Madonna of the Grand Duke by Raphael

The Madonna of the Grand Duke by Raphael (1504)

I wonder if you have ever considered what subject has been depicted the most in art.  If I was to guess and knowing the plethora of religious paintings I would have to say it was the depiction of the Madonna and Child.  It is very interesting to study how both the Virgin Mary and the Christ child are visually represented in these paintings and how they differ down the ages.  In some the young Christ Child almost has the face of a grown man.  In some the Virgin Mary has a very wooden expression and her looks would be described in modern terminology as plain.   Today I was attending a talk about the artist Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, better known simply as Raphael and one of the paintings we looked at was his Madonna of the Grand Duke and the more I looked at it the more I fell in love with it,  so come and join me in this journey of discovery of what I believe is one of the most beautiful Madonnas.

The Madonna of the Grand Duke, or to give it its correct title Madonna del  Granduca, was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael Sanzio in 1504 shortly after he arrived in Florence and was owned by Grand Duke Ferdinand III, hence the name of the painting.  It can be found now in the Palatine Gallery of the Pitti Palace in Florence.  In the painting Mary is shown standing and we see her in more length than in Raphael’s other Madonna paintings such as the Madonna Tempi and Virgin with Chair. She has the features of a beautiful Italian girl.   She is wearing a long cloak that begins in a veil over her head which then cascades downwards and in doing so emphasises the long vertical lines of the frame.  Instead of the baby being held at shoulder height the Christ Child is tenderly held and supported by her at almost waist level.  It is almost as if the characters are painted to fit with the long length of the frame.  This has allowed Mary to be shown in a more majestic and venerable pose.  There is a dignified look about Mary but one also detects a look of sadness.  Whereas Mary gazes downward in an almost trance-like expression the Christ child is wide eyed and inquisitive.

Many artists despaired at Raphael’s talent.  His depictions of the Madonna, like today’s painting, and other female portraits show tenderness, warmth and elegance which other artists struggled to attain.  To many he is simply the painter of sweet Madonnas, which have become so well known as hardly to be appreciated as paintings any more.  Today’s painting is a classic and for artists that followed Raphael it acted as a standard of perfection. 

I challenge you to find me another Madonna painting of such exquisite beauty