THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Sistine Madonna’ by Raphael da Urbino (1513)
O Maiden will you be, the Mother of the Saviour
Your God has chosen you, to give the world His Son
His power will be your shield, His Spirit come upon you
And Mary bowed and said, ‘God’s will be done’
From the Annunciation to the Presentation, to the Passion, Death and Resurrection, it was Mary’s unconditional yes that bore and revealed to us the unconditional love of God. The Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church honours her divine maternity through the feast of the Solemnity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is celebrated on the Octave of Christmas on January the 1st. It is therefore befitting today to dwell on a painting depicting the Mother of God (Greek ‘Theotokos’ meaning ‘God bearer’).
Who best can bring to us the soul of this subject than the art of Raphael? Even an amateur art lover can conjure the serene, impeccable, imperturbable, graceful, gentle, noble image of Raphael’s Madonnas. Through this concluding Christmas Canvas let’s contemplate on the last Madonna that Raphael painted titled ‘The Sistine Madonna’.
An outstanding and a powerful work of art, the Sistine Madonna was commissioned by Pope Julius II as an altar piece for the Chapel of St. Sixtus in Piacenza in 1513. However in 1574 it was purchased by Augustus III of Poland to add to his private collection and later transferred to the Dresden Gallery. Preserved from destruction, during World War II it was stored in a tunnel. Captured by the Red Army it was taken to Moscow and temporarily housed in the Pushkin Museum. Ten years later as a sign of goodwill, the Soviets restored it to Dresden in 1955 where it stands on display till date.
We are at once drawn to the image of a young Mother cradling the Christ Child. As the curtains raise open she steps out from a mysterious origin into the world. The medieval motif of the curtains recalls the curtain of the Temple of Jerusalem rent asunder at Christ death. The curtain is hailed as a revelation of the Divine Incarnation.
Observe the tenderly contact between the Mother and the child who do not regard each other yet hold onto each other. Her cascading drapery sets the scene into motion. She looks intently at the viewer, mystical and anxious. The mysterious expressions of the Madonna and the Child can be traced to the fact that it was supposed to be displayed across a Crucifix. Thus the mournful look of horror was perhaps a response to the impeding Passion and Death that lay before Christ.
Swirling around the Madonna is a carpet of cherubs. To her either side genuflect two saints. To her right is the Martyr Saint Sixtus II. Garbed in a rich golden brocaded cope, he is ecstatically forgetful of self. His triple Papal crown rests on the parapet in humility and surrender.
To the Virgin’s left kneels the patron saint of armourers, artillery men, architects, mathematicians, miners and the Italian army – Saint Barbara. She gazes downwards at the famous pair of cherubs. Right behind her is a tower, a symbol of her imprisonment when she was locked away for her faith in opposition to her father. The triangular arrangement of the three figures stands on a bed of blissful clouds
We now come to the absolutely unusual afterthought of Raphael’s composition: the acclaimed appealing pair of little cherubs. Their upward gaze at once attracts us to the heart of the painting: the image of the Madonna and the Child. Perched on a ledge, they manifest innocent adoration. Adopted as an attractive pair of advertising darlings, they serve as an effective contemporary marketing tool.
All in all, the Sistine Madonna is a vision that elevates our being to the strong, blissful, selfless, graceful, nurturing, amazing, unconditional, divine love of a Mother. It also invites us to reflect on the Virgin’s obedience in saying yes and her perseverance in fulfilling the yes in faithfulness and hope; a hope that won us freedom and a yes that won us salvation. This then is the essence of this Christmas Canvas.
From the rustic Annunciation to the transcending Dream of Joseph, the affectionate Visitation to the cold Census at Bethlehem, from the Mystic Nativity to the absolute Adoration of the Shepherds, the political Procession of the Magi to their majestic Adoration, from the fleeing Flight to Egypt to the horrendous Massacre of the Innocents and the pious Presentation at the Temple to the sacred Sistine Madonna; the chronicles of these 12 Christmas canvases have carved forth the Christmas story, a God-bearing story that changed the world. A story that dwells on the eternal reality of God made man. A story that permits us to share in the divine even as Christ shared in our humanity thus unfurling the true magical love of Christmas!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557