Italian Paintings – Sistine Madonna

The last Madonna which Raphael painted, and which won for him the title “Il Divino,” was the Madonna di San Sisto. It was painted for the Benedictine Monks at Piacenza for their church of San Sisto. They retained their treasure until about 1794, when it was bought by Augustus III., Elector of Saxony, and today it is considered the most valuable picture in the world. As if Raphael knew it would be his last Holy Family, he concentrated in it every excellence to which he had attained, producing a work before which the greatest masters of art, the most reverent, and the most skeptical, alike bow their heads. Mrs. Jame-son, in speaking of the Virgin, and of the attributes which go to make up this glorious type of perfection, says, “Where shall we seek this highest, holiest impersonation? Where has it ever been attained or even approached? Of course, we each form to ourselves some notion of what we require, and these requirements will be as diverse as our natures, and our habits of thought. For myself, I have seen my own ideal once, and only once attained, there, where Raphael inspired, if ever painter was inspired projected on the space before him that wonderful creation which we style the Ma-donna di San Sisto. For there she stands, the transfigured woman, at once completely human and completely divine, an abstraction of power, purity and love, poised on the empurpled air, and requiring no other support, looking out with her slightly dilated sibylline eyes quite through the universe to the end and consummation of all things, sad, as if she beheld afar off the visionary sword that was to reach her heart through Him, now resting as enthroned on that heart, yet already exalted through the homage of the redeemed generations who were to salute her as blessed.”

Says Lubke: “Raphael’s Madonnas, and in the highest sense the Sistine Madonna, belong to no special epoch, to no particular religious creed. They exist for all time, and for all mankind, because they present an immortal truth in a form that makes a universal appeal.”

Says Hegel: “The Madonna di San Sisto is thinking of the godlike rather than of the human in her child. He is mysteriously above her, even when the object of her care. It is not the relation which human ones bear to each other, but that which all bear to the source of life, which has now condescended, and come near in the person of this child.

“We do not stop to criticize the painter’s ideal in the face of the child. Of this, much might be said, but in the mother the consciousness of maternity is in abeyance, swallowed up in other thoughts. The human love yields to the adoring love. In this picture we have the beauty which implies the need of reconciliation, and reconciliation accomplished.

“In the face of the child we have the infant son of man, He who is to judge the world. He looks into infinity, and His mother’s looks follow His. The impulse of the beholder after regarding either face is to cast down one’s eyes, for each dwells in a region we have not yet reached, and makes part of the beauty for which we are not yet prepared. In this transcendent realm, the ideal relation between all human souls can only be had when each soul is in true relation to God. This then is the highest and most beautiful state beyond which there is nothing which art can claim to show.”

This picture is the most precious possession of the Dresden gallery. It is in a room by itself. Day after day, year after year, a long procession of men and women pass before this picture. Every man removes his hat, every one steps softly, everybody speaks in a whisper. Anyone who has seen the picture will bear me out when I say that there is no other in the world that produces a like impression. Mrs. Jameson voices one’s thoughts and feelings when she calls the Madonna, “the transfigured woman, at once completely human and completely divine.” There is no other face which has the power by its spirituality, by its purity, to subdue the beholder that this face has. Mr. Hegel is right when he says : “The impulse of the beholder after regarding either face is to cast down one’s eyes ; each dwells in a region we have not yet reached, and makes part of the beauty for which we are not yet prepared.”

No copy, however good, can compare with the original. There is a subtle something in this picture which eludes the copyist.

The two other figures are St. Sixtus and St. Barbara. St. Sixtus seems to be imploring the Virgin’s favor for the Brotherhood for whom the picture was painted. He is said to be Sixtus II., a Greek Pope, who lived in the third century. He succeeded Pope Etienne in the year 257. After holding his office just one year he was beheaded in the cemetery of St. Calixtus during the eighth persecution of the Christians, in the reign of the Emperor Valerian. St. Barbara kneels to the left of the Virgin. Just above her right shoulder and partly concealed by the curtain is a small tower, the symbol of the saint.

( Originally Published 1912 )

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