Raphael was the Renaissance’s golden boy. In his own time and for centuries afterward, his art was considered the embodiment of the harmony and ideal beauty of the High Renaissance. Born in Urbino where his father was court artist, he would have known the work of Mantegna, Ucello and Piero della Francesca in his youth. Perugino was an influence on his early work but after coming to Florence in 1504 it was the grandeur and depth of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci that inspired him.
In Florence, the young (and by all accounts, very handsome) Raphael gained a reputation as an artist producing images of the Madonna and Child. The Madonna in the Meadow was painted during this time – the date is embroidered into the neckline of the Madonna’s dress. It was made for Raphael’s friend and patron Taddeo Taddei, who was also a patron of Michelangelo. (The painting remained in the Taddei family’s Florence palace – where it would have been considered both a focus for private worship and as an art treasure - until 1662, when the Archduke Ferdinand Karl bought it for Ambras Castle near Innsbruck; it has been in Vienna since 1773.
The picture is characteristic of Raphael’s many Florentine Madonnas: full of human warmth, serenity, and sublimely perfect figures. Influenced by Leonardo’s formal studies, the geometric composition is based on a triangle or, more exactly, a pyramid. This structure helps create the almost otherworldly tranquillity of the scene, despite the fact that all three figures are interactive and animated.
A curly-haired John the Baptist (who legend says recognised Christ as the messiah as a child) kneels before the Christ Child who holds John’s cross, a reminder of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The two rosy-cheeked children look at each other with knowing intensity. The Madonna – pale, blonde and beautiful - looks to John as she leans forward tenderly holding Christ, as if to prevent the toddler from falling.
The landscape is also part of the interaction: the earthy green countryside evolves into a distant blue sky and the softly curving hills echo the round forms of the figures, uniting the composition. Like Leonardo, Raphael sought to express more than the physical, he also wanted to convey a sense of the psyche. The figure’s expressions, gestures and even the setting have a melancholic air; the idyllic beauty cannot hide a difficult destiny.
Raphael would reach the height of his glory in Rome where from 1508 he was court artist to Popes Julius II and Leo X. “Everything pertaining to art the pope turns over to Raphael,” wrote an ambassador in 1518. He was the consummate Renaissance man; he painted portraits, decorated the Vatican Palace, designed churches, directed archaeological research and acted as Leo’s commissioner of antiquities. Vasari wrote that his death at the age of thirty-seven ”plunged into grief the entire papal court"; the Pope, who ‘wept bitterly when he died, had intended making him a Cardinal’.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1506 Albrecht Dürer: Christ Among the Doctors, Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza