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Raphael, La belle jardinière

Raphael, La belle jardinière (also, Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist), 1507, oil on panel, 48 × 31½ in (122 × 80 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris) Speakers: Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

DR. BETH HARRIS: We're in the Louvre, and we're looking at a painting by Raphael called La Belle Jardinire. And it's a lovely Raphael Madonna and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist in that pyramid composition that we so often associate with the High Renaissance. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: What's interesting is that the Virgin Mary is not in a religious environment. We see no archways, and she's got no throne. If we're to argue that she had a throne at all, it would be the throne of nature. She sits on a rock in a field with a beautiful atmospheric perspective behind her creating this lovely, verdant environment. DR. BETH HARRIS: As we look down at the foreground, we seen plants, perhaps the edge of a pond, and little flowers. The loveliest passages to me are the way that Christ, on the left, stands on his mother's foot, really showing that kind of dependence on his mother and yet also a growing sense of independence as he seeks to take the book out of her hands and looks up at her. And of course the content of that book foretells his own demise. It foretells the crucifixion. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And the look on Mary's face is one that suggests that she knows this. She's looking at him to, in a sense, gauge whether or not he's ready for that knowledge. DR. BETH HARRIS: She puts her right arm around him, protecting him, and seems to hesitate for a moment with her left hand whether to allow him to take that book or not. Saint John the Baptist, who kneels in prayer toward Christ, is in a very graceful pose as he kneels down on his right knee, tilts his neck up, and looks up at Christ. We have that High Renaissance gracefulness and ideal beauty. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Let's look for just a moment at the gazes within the painting. I think you're right to start with John the Baptist and his eyes gazing up at Christ, who in turn's body and face moves up to Mary. And Mary then returns that gaze, in a sense our gaze, back down to Christ. DR. BETH HARRIS: So everyone's gaze is really focused on Christ. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: Yep, and we're in the middle of that triangle as we watch them look at each other. DR. BETH HARRIS: And Mary's ideally beautiful. And we have only the faintest outline of a halo. That halo is disappearing as we enter the High Renaissance, because the figures exude a kind of divinity by their ideal beauty. We don't need that symbol of a halo anymore. DR. STEVEN ZUCKER: And for Raphael, its nature that takes on that role. No longer are those stage props of divinity necessary, as you said. But it's the landscape itself. It's God's world that he's created that is an expression of divinity. And it's beauty itself that is the expression of divinity here, Mary's beauty, Christ's beauty, and even John's beauty.