How to Read Paintings: The Alba Madonna by Raphael

A masterpiece of composition and powerful elegance

The Alba Madonna (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons(public domain).

I find that the more you look at this painting, The Alba Madonna by Raphael, the more compelling it becomes.

Let your eyes explore the shape and form of the Virgin Mary’s blue cloak, for instance. See how it gently dominates the scene, not only unifying the three figures in the picture by holding them within its folds, but also seeming to rest so naturally around Mary’s form, over her outstretched leg and onto the ground beneath her.

The effect is not only to create a harmonious composition, but also to establish the peace and integrity of the holy family — Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist — in visual form.

Raphael has the somewhat dubious distinction of being called a “perfect” painter. So many of his works have the aspects of serenity and inner harmony that it can be all too easy to stop looking at them with any degree of scrutiny. He was not a painter of mysterious or violent scenes. Instead, his artistic efforts went in search of a different type of mystery — a pursuit of harmonious beauty. Yet it was a search that is no less fascinating.

Detail of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Images of the Virgin Mary and Christ as a young child — otherwise known as the Madonna and Child — have a long history in Western art. The earliest examples can be found in the Christian catacombs in Rome that date as far back as the 3rd century. This painting, made in around 1510, marks one of the great achievements in Renaissance art.

Perhaps what is initially most striking about the Alba Madonna painting its the circular form. This is a so-called “tondo” painting, from the Italian rotondo meaning “round”.

Numerous legends sprung up over the centuries that sought to explain why Raphael painted in the tondo-form. Most of them rehearse the cliche of the itinerant artist moving from place to place, who, thanks to his spontaneity and exceptional talent, was able to paint on anything that came to hand — in this case, a circular panel from a wooden barrel.

One of many studies for the ‘Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In truth, Raphael was a far more considered artist than these stories give him credit for. To have simply grabbed the first piece of wood that came his way was wholly unlikely. In fact, the tondo-form was popular in Florentine painting, and had its roots in Greek antiquity.

Raphael made numerous sketched studies for the Alba Madonna, and these show that the tondo-form was present in his thoughts throughout the planning process.

The sketches also offer a crucial insight into Raphael’s working technique, not least how he worked through various ideas of the composition, looking for ways to interlock the three figures in a rhythmic pattern within the circle.

The Alba Madonna is notable for showing Mary sat on the ground next to a tree stump. This follows the lesser-known tradition in Christian art known as the “Madonna of Humility”, in which images of the Virgin show her sat on the floor or on a low cushion, indicating her humbleness.

Detail of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Raphael worked especially hard to arrange the three figures in a harmonious group, using their line-of-sight to forms an intimate and rhythmic unity. He also learned from artists around him. The upturned gaze of John the Baptist, for example, was a technique common in paintings from Urbino, where Raphael first trained under the artist Perugino.

Composition always played a vital role in Raphael’s work. The precise arrangement of elements in the painted space give his work an inner unity and structural balance. See how, for example, the head of John the Baptist is slightly larger than that of Christ, as a means of balancing out the interplay of looking, and how Jesus holds John’s staff, so physically linking the figures.

Perhaps more than any other artist of his generation, Raphael made use of geometrical shapes in his compositions to elevate his art towards the Renaissance ideal of mathematical harmony. A few year before making the Alba Madonna, Raphael painted the Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna del Prato), also known as the Madonna del Belvedere after the Viennese castle where it hung for many years.

Madonna in the Meadow (1505–1506), by Raphael. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria. Image source (public domain). Edited by author.

In this work, there is an obvious pyramidal composition. Mary’s head creates the top of a triangle shape; the points of the base are made by her extended right foot and the toes of John the Baptist (bottom-left). There is an inner triangle too, formed between the two children and the shape of Mary’s reaching arm. The unified format gives the work an architectural structure, yet with an inner movement provided by the smaller triangle.

As Raphael’s work grew in maturity, his reliance on the pyramid evolved into a more complex blend of structural elements. In the The Alba Madonna, the triangular composition is still present, but it is allowed to flex with a degree of musicality that is new to Raphael’s work. An elliptical movement between various points of interest creates a beautiful rhythm across the work.

Composition structures of ‘The Alba Madonna’ (c.1510) by Raphael. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Image source Wikimedia Commons (public domain). Edited by author.

The year Raphael made the Alba Madonna, he’d been in Rome for two years. He’d moved there in 1508, summoned by Pope Julius II to decorate the personal apartments in the Vatican. Before Rome, Raphael had based himself in Florence, which was one of the great artistic centres of Italy at the time. Raphael he learned from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and in the spirit of the times, imitated many of their techniques in his own work.

The end painting, then, was not arrived at by chance or spontaneous inspiration, but by a careful and thorough working-out. The sketches he made in preparation for the painting also confirm the manner in which Raphael looked to other artists for inspiration, conforming to the prevailing theory of the times in which learning from other artists was seen as essential for creativity and invention. Vasari put is like this: “The most gracious Raphael of Urbino, who, studying the works of old and modern masters, took the best from all, and having gathered them together, enriched the art of painting with that complete perfection.”

Ann Treboux

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