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Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch

Raphael, Madonna of the Goldfinch, 1505-6, oil on panel, 42" x 30" (107 x 77 cm), Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

MAN: We're in the Uffizi. And we're looking at a Raphael. And this is the "Madonna of the Goldfinch," which is a really funny title. WOMAN: It is a funny title. And John-- who we see here on the left-- is holding out a goldfinch, the bird, to the Christ child, who strokes its head. And the goldfinch is a symbol of the passion of Christ, of Christ's suffering. And so we have that idea that we often have, of the foretelling Christ's terrible future. MAN: At the same time, this is a painting of two children and a mother. And so it exists in several different planes, because they're children doing childlike things-- one showing a pet to another, one wanting to touch it, the mother looking down protectively. WOMAN: And even a kind of tenderness between the mother and son-- look at the way that Christ puts his foot on his mother's. So there's that skin-to-skin moment of human contact there that's really lovely. But to me, Christ doesn't look like a child having fun. He looks very much all-knowing. I suppose if you were looking at a painting from the 1300s, Christ would look-- instead of looking like a baby, he would look like a little man, in order to indicate his sense of wisdom. But here I think Raphael communicates that through the elegance of Christ's body. Look at the way he lifts his arm up, strokes the goldfinch, and tilts his head back. He stands in this incredibly elegant contrapposto that no child would ever stand in. I mean, it's such a pose. MAN: It's true. And it's a beautiful foreshortening of his head, of his face as he leans back. But then there's a kind of energy and child-likeness that we see in John. John seems so engaged-- look what I can show you. WOMAN: And yet it's this symbol, this really potent symbol, of Christ's suffering. MAN: What's so interesting is that, unlike the 1300s as you mentioned before, we don't have the Madonna on the throne. Here, nature itself is the throne. We have this verdant environment, this beautiful atmospheric perspective. And she sits on a rock. That is, divinity is all around us. By the time we get to the late 15th century through the early 16th century, in the High Renaissance, nature itself has taken on the expression of God. We don't need, in a sense, those kingly symbols. WOMAN: Look at how composed it is, it in a way that we don't even notice immediately. We have a pyramid composition, with Mary at the top, and Saint John and Christ on either side, and that sense of real stability and balance that's also so much a part of the High Renaissance. MAN: Even as the figures are so engaged with each other-- and there's real dialogue that's taking place with them-- there is also that sense, that High Renaissance sense, you're right, of balance, of perfection, of the eternal. WOMAN: That interlocking of gestures and glances-- Mary looking at down at John, John looking at Christ, Christ looking back at John-- all of them enclosed within the pyramid structure of Mary's body, that unified composition that brings everything together in this really lovely landscape. MAN: I'm intrigued by the book. Mary had been reading. She's kept her place. And of course, that reminds us of an earlier scene in the Annunciation, when Gabriel interrupts as she's been piously reading the Bible. But here she's been reading, and now she's interrupted by her charges. She's doing a little bit of babysitting.