Raphael: The Mystery Surrounding the Four Madonnas at the State Hermitage Museum
by Cathy Locke
The production of images dealing with Christianity was not legal until February 19, 842 when an edict called the Final Triumph of Image Worship was approved in Constantinople.(1) Prior to this period the Council of Constantinople had led a brutal war on image worship since the religion first appeared in their city.(2) Six hundred years later the creation of Christian images had become a hugely successful enterprise upon which Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) built their careers. Raphael’s first art teacher was his father, Giovanni de Santi (1435-1494), who was a painter and decorator. In 1494, at age eleven, Raphael was orphaned and went to live with his uncle Fra Bartolomeo (1472-1517). Bartolomeo had just completed his apprenticeship with Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), who was considered to be one of the greatest painters of his time. By the time Raphael entered his first “official” apprenticeship in 1500 with Pietro Perugino (1446/1450-1523) he had already been painting for most of his life.
An apprentice in a workshop of a great master painter during the 1500s would begin by learning to build frames, mix paints and prepare surfaces for painting. In order to receive a license from the local painting guild, a painter would have to prove their ability in frame making as well as in painting. In 1502 Raphael received his master status from the painters’ guild of Florence, Italy. That same year he painted Madonna and Child (1502), also known as the Conestabile Madonna, which is located at the State Hermitage Museum. There is no documentation that tells us whether or not Raphael presented this piece to the guild committee; we can only assume that it is highly possible. This small circular tempera painting (7”h x 6.89”w) sits inside an ornate wood frame (24.4”h x 19.9”w) decorated in gold that was designed, painted and built by Raphael. The painting itself is rather simple: Madonna holding the Christ Child in a classic harmonic Renaissance landscape. There is very little color variation in this cool palette of primarily blue and green. As there is almost no development of modeling the forms, the figures appear to be quite flat. The elaborate altar frame is over twice the size of the painting, totally eclipsing it in both scale and detail. During this period the craftsmanship of altar frames defined the power of the artwork. Clearly Raphael was making a statement about the power of this jewel-like painting. In 1871, the painting was purchased by Alexander II (1818-1881) from the collection of Count Conestabile of Perugia, as a gift to his wife Maria Alexandrovna (1824-1880). The original piece was one piece of wood, which included the frame and the painting. The restoration staff at the Hermitage State Museum separated the painting from the frame and transferred it to canvas.
During Raphael’s apprenticeship in Perugino’s workshop (1500-1502) he would have had the opportunity to be exposed to Leonardo da Vinci’s work. Leonardo lived and worked in Florence from 1500 to 1506. Though they were rivals, Perugino and Leonardo apprenticed together in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-1488) and forged a lifelong friendship. Leonardo began working on the Mona Lisa in 1503, while living in Florence. During this period Raphael's figures began to take on a more dynamic and complex quality. With his second painting at the Hermitage Museum – The Holy Family (1505-1507), also known as Madonna with the Beardless St. Joseph and also painted in Florence, we see a meteoric jump in Raphael’s skill set. There is an interesting passage in Rona Goffen’s book – Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian – where she states: “The rivalries of Verrocchio’s studio were passed onto the next generation: Ghirlandaio became the master of Michelangelo, Leonardo’s greatest competitor; and Perugino, the teacher of Raphael, Leonardo’s greatest follower.”(3)
Raphael’s masterpiece The Holy Family (28.5”h x 22.5”w) was originally painted onto a wood panel and combines tempera and oil. Departing from tradition, the artist depicted St. Joseph without a beard, hence the painting’s second title – Madonna with the Beardless St. Joseph. Raphael became very popular for his small Florentine pictures of the Madonna and Christ Child; over and over he painted the same plump calm-faced blonde woman and her succession of chubby babies. In this painting Raphael uses one of Leonardo’s compositional inventions, the pyramidal Holy Family. The soft glances of the Madonna to St. Joseph, then St. Joseph to the Christ Child remind us of many of Leonardo’s paintings. As well we can see Leonardo’s sfumato modeling in the way Raphael painted the flesh and atmospheric perspective. In this painting we also see Perugino’s soft style in Raphael’s development of the chiaroscuro shadows on the Holy Family. Technically this painting far outshines his earlier Conestabile Madonna in both complexity of the composition and the mastery of pure painting skill. According to the Hermitage Museum’s website (accessed December 2015) Raphael painted this Holy Family most likely for Guidobaldo Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino. Like the Conestabile Madonna, The Holy Family was also transferred from its wood panel to canvas by the Hermitage Museum’s restoration department.
- William Oliver Stevens, The Cross in the Life and Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, Kessinger Publishing, LLC (July 25, 2007), page 92.
- Rona Goffen, Renaissance Rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Yale University Press (August 11, 2004), page 31.
About the Author:
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.