Pope Uses Art to Pave His Path to Germany

Benedict XVI and Raphael Seem a Well-Matched Pair

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, SEPT. 22, 2011 (Zenit.org).- In the year 1512, Raphael Sanzio hit his stride. The painter from Urbino had just completed his debut work, the Stanza della Segnatura, for Pope Julius II, and it had been greeted with universal accolades. It seemed that only Michelangelo, busily completing the Sistine ceiling, remained oblivious to the masterpiece unveiled 100 yards away.

In the wake of this triumph, Raphael became the darling of the papal court and was asked to paint two large altarpieces destined for churches outside the Vatican walls. These commissions would bring the youthful genius’ talent for combining faith and beauty to a far wider public.

Cardinal Sigismondo dei Conti, the papal treasurer, commissioned Raphael the painting of La Madonna of Foligno, now in the Vatican Museums, while Pope Julius II himself requested the Sistine Madonna for the church of St. Sixtus in the newly annexed territory of Piacenza. The Sistine Madonna was purchased in 1754 by Augustus III of Poland and has been in Dresden ever since (except for a short stint in Russia after World War II).

This month, for the first time since Raphael brought the wooden panels to his workshop to be painted, these two works are standing side by side, an initiative of Benedict XVI and the Vatican Museums. In preparation for his trip to Germany, now under way, the Holy Father sent the Madonna of Foligno to the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen of Dresden where it will be exhibited next to the Sistine Madonna until Jan. 8.

Although the two works were begun around the same time, they were completed a few years apart and never seen together. The Madonna of Foligno was already in place in the church of Ara Coeli in Rome when the Sistine Madonna was packed off to the monastery of St. Benedict in Piacenza in 1513 or 1514. This opportunity to view the two «sister painting» together is a rare privilege in both the history of art and Marian devotion.

The two works are similar in width although the Madonna of Foligno is a foot taller. They both feature the Madonna and Child, saints and cherubs, but between the two, one can discern an advance in Raphael’s style.

The Foligno Madonna illustrates Raphael’s first mature engagement with the artistic requirements of Rome. Engaging the viewer was the first task of the Renaissance painter and Raphael found ever more innovative ways of capturing attention. His Madonna does not stay isolated in the heavens, or hemmed in by architectural barriers, distinct from her surrounding as in earlier works, nor does the Christ Child sit complacently in her lap.

Raphael’s Mary seems constantly ready to help all who invoke her, with that impetuousness she displayed when she went to visit her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. In this panel, her upper body is surrounded by a circle of light, a kind of giant halo, but also a very geometric sense of the perfection of heaven opening before our eyes. This yellow disc also evokes the «woman cloaked in the sun,» while the slender arc beneath her feet recalls the crescent moon, The clouds below, however, break the circle and tumble downward, like a path leading toward her petitioners.

The Infant Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have escaped from a Michelangelo painting, twisting coyly back toward his mother with one foot placed firmly on the ground, while he points toward the heavenly light behind.

Raphael’s unique genius is best revealed through his angels; the same substance as clouds, they emerge as light plays across their contours and when they fall into shadow they return to their original form. In a display of astounding creativity and virtuosity, Raphael’s painting technique challenged the sculptural supremacy of Michelangelo.

In the lower section, four saints stand grouped around a cherub holding a plaque of sorts. What the plaque might have read remains a matter of debate: Some suggest it was the signature of the artist while others think it an epitaph in honor of the donor. I would suggest that as an altarpiece, it might be intended to read as the headboard of Christ’s cross, the INRI, under which that innocent child above would one day be crucified.

Below the Madonna and child, saints and supplicants stand in a rich and varied landscape. Here again Raphael uses his prodigious imagination to develop a variety of poses. The patron, depicted in sharp profile, kneels in his cardinal robes. His is the least dynamic relationship with the scene. Behind him his patron saint Jerome rests his hand lightly on the cardinals head, supplicating with Mary above him.

The other group of saints beckons the viewer. John the Baptist stares outward, his dark eyes intent as he vigorously points toward the Mother and Son. St. Francis (Ara Coeli was a Franciscan church), on the other hand, kneels rapt before the vision but his hand reaches out tenderly toward those gathered around the altar.

Raphael’s painted figures inspire and intercede, becoming examples for both ordering one’s life as well as devotion.

Pontiff’s role

The Sistine Madonna reduces the figures and does away with landscape. In so doing, it startles the viewer with the directness of the Virgin and her Son. Whereas in the Madonna of Foligno, Christ returns Francis’ gaze and Mary’s eyes meet St. Jerome’s, in the Sistine Madonna, Mary looks straight into our eyes, inviting us to place out petitions before her on the parapet below.

Both she and her Son seem concerned, compassionate toward the problems and struggles of those supplicants who approach them.

A green curtain pulls back to reveal a completely different world. No landscape anchors the viewer in known reality; rather, billowing clouds fill the space. Closer contemplation reveals the same angels from the Foligno panel, but their faces seem even more faded and unearthly.

The solidity of Mary, Christ and the accompanying saints stands in contrast to their ethereal setting. Mary’s fluttering gown casts a shadow on the misty carpet below and Infant Christ seems both soft and warm; one can imagine taking this sturdy baby in one’s arms. Although Mary stands five feet tall in the work, making her an iconic and commanding presence in the altarpiece, Raphael’s true area of concentration was the circle around Mary’s head and arms. The painting seems ready to be a domestic tondo as easily as a large-scale altarpiece.

St. Barbara (whose relic was in the altar) displays Raphael’s new sensitivity to color with the lemon, rose and olive sleeve. She turns elegantly in space, studying the impish angels at the parapet.

Pope Sixtus (in the guise of Julius II) takes a more active stance. Slightly lower in the triangle than Barbara, he is the nearest to the viewer. One hand rests adoringly on his heart, while the other points out toward all those who approach the scene. Here is the true task of the Pope, more important than his temporal responsibilities (symbolized by the tiara left behind on the parapet): His prayers and intercession for his flock are his most solemn duty.

Jesus told St. Peter «Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven»(Matthew 16:19). The Sistine Madonna shows a pope eager to assist souls to heaven, seemingly prepared to present each of his sheep and lambs by name.

It was this image of the papacy that Julius wanted to send to the new papal territory of Piacenza: not a menacing display of papal might but a benign father looking to bring all his children home. Raphael’s sweet angels (perhaps the most famous in art) lessen the iconic tension and render the work gentle and approachable, a wonderful presentation of the pontiff and his role in the Church.


This work has delighted the Germans for centuries. Catholics, Luther
ans and secularists all admire this image of their Mary, whether for spiritual or aesthetic reasons, keeping the Blessed Virgin alive and beloved in the hearts of Germans.

German art historian Hans Belting wrote of the Sistine Madonna, «Like no other work of art, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna in Dresden has fired the Germans’ imagination, uniting or dividing them in the debate about art and religion.»

This is not the first time that Pope Benedict has used art to pave a path in a country fraught with religious tension. Last September, before arriving in England for the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the Holy Father sent over several of Raphael’s tapestries from the museums to join their preparatory cartoons in the Victoria and Albert museum in London. It was the first time the works had been shown together in 500 years.

Beauty has been an integral part of the teaching during Pope Benedict’s pontificate. Looking at art, the Holy Father said during the general audience of Aug. 31, 2001, at Castel Gandolfo; «is not only an occasion for cultural enrichment, but above all it can be a moment of grace, an encouragement to strengthen our relationship and our dialogue with the Lord, to stop and contemplate, in the transition from simple external reality to a deeper reality, the ray of beauty that strikes us, that almost wounds us in our inner selves and invites us to rise towards God.»

For both trips, Raphael seems to be the artist of choice for forming these bridges across Europe. In many ways, the charming, quiet, studious painter seems to suit the personality of Pope Benedict more than the explosive, dramatic personality of Michelangelo.

Blessed John Paul II, actor, athlete and dynamo who ordered the cleaning of the Sistine chapel and wrote poems about Michelangelo’s art, clearly had an affinity with the towering giant of sculpture, painting and architecture who took the world by storm. Pope Benedict seems to possess more of Raphael’s understated grace, his intellectual fearlessness and his elegant form of persuasion, which frequently make people overlook the true and active genius of this great painter.

As Europe grows to admire and rediscover the genius of Raphael’s haunting art, perhaps it will also learn to appreciate the beauty of this gentle yet deeply stimulating pontificate.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation