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Raphael, Alba Madonna

Raphael, Alba Madonna, oil on panel transferred to canvas, c. 1510 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Male voiceover: We're in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and we're looking at a really beautiful painting. It's Raphael's Alba Madonna from about 1510. Female voiceover: Raphael was famous for his incredibly beautiful and sweet Madonnas, and this is the perfect example of that. Male voiceover: It's a really unusual painting. You have the Virgin Mary. You have the young Christ on her lap, but if you look at the way her arms are extended and the way that her lap is extended. It's almost as if she's really a throne for him to sit on. Female voiceover: But we have essentially the same cast of characters that we have in Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks. Male voiceover: So, the third figure. Female voiceover: Saint John the Baptist. Male voiceover: How can you tell? Female voiceover: The only thing that's missing here that was in the Leonardo was the figure of an angel. Male voiceover: And of course we've entered into the high renaissance now. In a sense the angel has really disappeared. Those sort of overt expressions. Female voiceover: Spiritual figures. Male voiceover: That's right, those overt expressions of the divine. Female voiceover: Right. Male voiceover: In a sense they've been replaced by nature itself. Female voiceover: Raphael definitely has looked at Leonardo and his Madonna has her arm around Saint John much the same way that she does in the Virgin of the Rocks. Male voiceover: Yes. Female voiceover: And we have those lingering faint ... Male voiceover: Well after all she's his aunt. Female voiceover: That's true. We have those lingering faint halos. Male voiceover: The faintest trace still. Female voiceover: Right, and they're going to be gone. Actually I suppose with Leonardo they'd already been gone, but Raphael is still holding onto them a bit. You're right there's a kind of overwhelming humanism here, a humanism that's transcended by the ideal beauty of the figures. Male voiceover: So he's really expressing divinity through this ideal beauty then. Female voiceover: And also I think through the incredibly fluid and graceful way that the figures move. Male voiceover: It's almost like dance. Female voiceover: It is almost like dance. It's incredibly complicated. Mary looks down past Saint John, almost looking into the future, her arm around him, her left hand holding a page in the Bible. The Christ child twisting his body. Male voiceover: He's sort of accepting the cross. Right? Female voiceover: A kind of acceptance of his destiny, of his sacrifice. Male voiceover: Right. Female voiceover: Mary has her right leg tucked under her left leg. There's a since that she's caught moving here. There's nothing static about any part of this image. Male voiceover: And even though there's this lack of static there's also a kind of, I guess because of their scale within the landscape ... Female voiceover: They're very monumental. Male voiceover: Yes, there's this monumentality, this sort of sense of seriousness here. Female voiceover: Absolutely. Male voiceover: They are in this beautiful natural environment and yet we get a sense of a kind of classicism. Raphael is in Rome. Female voiceover: Yes. Male voiceover: And he's really looking at the classical. Female voiceover: And he's concurrently working on ... Male voiceover: This is quite a moment isn't it? Female voiceover: ... the Stanza della Segnatura in the school of Athens included there, and at the same time Michelangelo of course is painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Male voiceover: Right at this moment. Female voiceover: So there's this incredible interest in monumental serious figures and monumental commissions and major masterpieces. Male voiceover: But this is a fairly modest painting in its scale. Female voiceover: It's about three feet. Male voiceover: Yeah, that's right. This is just something he does on the side. Female voiceover: Amazing isn't it? What a man. Male voiceover: Going back to the idea of Leonardo. Female voiceover: Yes, there's a lot of Leonardo here. Male voiceover: If you look at the delicate and careful rendering for instance ... Female voiceover: The flowers. Male voiceover: Yeah. The botanical specimens, very much like in Madonna of the Rocks. Female voiceover: Very much like the Madonna of the Rocks. Hard to know if Raphael himself is looking at northern Renaissance painting or he's got that influence sort of indirectly. Male voiceover: So, that's interesting. We talked about that classical influence but also a little bit of the north. Female voiceover: Yes, and we have an oil painting here. Male voiceover: That's right, that's right. Originally on panel. Female voiceover: And we have none of that kind of sfumato, smoky, mysteriousness that we have in the Leonardo. There's a real clarity here and sweetness instead of mystery. I think. Male voiceover: If you look at the composition it's just so beautifully handled. Female voiceover: Within the circular frame. Male voiceover: Which is a tough thing. Female voiceover: Oh my God it's really hard to make things fit comfortably within that circular shape. Male voiceover: And the figures don't feel cramped. They feel as if they have room to move and yet it does not call attention to the circle at all, to the rondel. It's just this really carefully rendered, and this incredible kind of intimacy as well between the figures. They're not really looking at each other, although Christ may be sort of looking at John. John, as you said, is sort of looking upward toward heaven. Mary seems to almost be looking a little bit past the two of them, but nevertheless there's this wonderful kind of bond, this wonderful kind of beautiful kind of intimacy. Female voiceover: There is, and there's a kind of interaction between the figures that I think is really unique to the high Renaissance, the loss of that kind of static separateness between the figures that was still there in the early Renaissance. I forget what Vasari calls it. It's a little bit of a kind of clunkiness that's still there. Male voiceover: A kind of isolation of the figures. Female voiceover: Yeah. Male voiceover: But we see it disappear certainly in Leonardo's Last Supper and of course we also see that in Michelangelo's ceiling. Female voiceover: Yes. Male voiceover: Which is being painted at this very moment. Female voiceover: That idea of unifying the composition within a pyramid shape also is here, and the atmospheric perspective is just beautiful. Male voiceover: It's gorgeous isn't it? Female voiceover: Do you think that looks like a Tuscan hillside? Male voiceover: You know, I would think so except because of the classical influence and because of the idea that he's in Rome maybe something closer to the outskirts of Rome. Especially with some of the older buildings in the back, very picturesque, really the kind of thing that later 18th century painters would pick up on. Female voiceover: And is she sitting and looking at ... Her right side, is she leaning on some rocks? Male voiceover: It must be, or sitting against a tree stump. It's a little bit hard to make out. Female voiceover: So we have the idea of the Madonna of humility, seated on the ground and the image which emphasizes her humbleness and even though she sort of provides her body as a throne for Christ she herself is sitting on the ground and is a very humble figure. Male voiceover: That's right, humble but still having a kind of ... Female voiceover: Divinity. Male voiceover: Divinity and importance and part of that again comes from the classicizing of the pose of the figures, but also look here Raphael has dressed at least Mary in classical garb. Female voiceover: Very classical, and in fact the way her clothing clings to her leg reminds me of classical sculpture, very specifically. Male voiceover: That's true. Probably sculpture that Raphael would not have seen yet, right? Things that are in Greece. But nevertheless you're right. Maybe there were some sources. Female voiceover: But he must have seen some ancient Greek relief sculptures I imagine. Male voiceover: Yeah and there was real interest at this moment. Female voiceover: Absolutely they were digging things up all over Rome. Male voiceover: Yes. (piano music)