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Raphael's Madonnas
For some 350 years after his death, the work of Raphael Sanzio stood alone, elevated to such a plane that it was looked upon as the highest level of perfection any painter might hope to achieve. And though he executed several massive fresco murals and altarpieces in oils, it was his Madonnas for which he quite justly achieved his greatest fame and respect amongst the legion of artists to follow. His sudden death in 1520 at the age of 37 shook all of Italy. At his funeral, he was accorded honours normally reserved for princes and popes. Over five-thousand people passed before his coffin as he lay in state before his unfinished masterpiece of the Transfiguration.

One of the reasons Raphael's Madonna and Child paintings were so influential was that there were so many of them. They numbered in the dozens with many more copies done by later artists. Beyond that though, Raphael's Madonnas are admired for the quiet elegance each has in common while nevertheless allowing us to glimpse the intimate, even playful joy shared by both mother and child. Examples of this can be seen in his Alba Madonna and the Madonna of the Chair. However this maternal love is probably most noticeable in his The Holy Family, better known as the Madonna di Loreto.

The Madonna from Loreto depicts an elegantly lovely mother dangling what appears to be silken threads above her reclining nude child who reaches up playfully with both hands to grasp them. Rendered darkly in the background of what is otherwise a warmly colourful picture, is a benign father looking over his wife's shoulder. It's a scene so universally domestic as to have been played out thousands of times in nurseries then and now. The painting was apparently commissioned by none other than Pope Julius II in 1509, and is said to have hung for many years in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome next to a portrait of the pope also by Raphael. In the early 1600s, a certain Cardinal Sfondrati is said to have stolen both paintings though some sources report he "bought" them for a modest sum. During Napoleon's romp through Italy in the early 1800s, the Madonna of Loreto was apparently stolen again. Today it hangs in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, though given its rather adventurous past, and the penchant artists have had for copying his work, there is at least a degree of doubt as to whether this painting is really Raphael's or a very good imitation.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
3 September 1998

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