The infant Christ throws his arms affectionately around his mother’s neck and smiles at us. But the Virgin Mary’s eyes are downcast, as though her thoughts are already on his future sacrifice.
The painting probably dates from the early years of Raphael’s time in Rome. It is called the ‘Mackintosh Madonna’ after the person who donated it to the National Gallery. It is also known as the ‘Madonna of the Tower’ because of the building just visible in the left background.
The picture is so damaged that it gives little idea of how it looked originally. The full-size template drawing, or cartoon, for it (British Museum, London) reveals soft atmospheric lighting and a psychological depth that has been lost in the painting, suggesting why this was one of Raphael’s compositions that appealed most powerfully to later artists.
Domenico Alfani, who had collaborated with Raphael, probably used the cartoon as the basis for an altarpiece dated 1518 (Perugia, Galleria Nazionale).
The Virgin Mary sits sideways on a wooden bench or parapet before a rural landscape, in a twisting pose similar to that in Raphael’s Garvagh Madonna. The infant Christ smiles at the viewer, his arms affectionately around his mother’s neck. One of his feet rests on the parapet, the other is supported in his mother’s hand. The Virgin’s eyes are downcast and her mood is sombre, as though her thoughts are already on Christ’s future sacrifice.
The work probably dates from the early years of Raphael’s time in Rome when he was working in the papal apartments of the Vatican. The painting is called the ‘Mackintosh Madonna’ after Miss Eva Mackintosh, who donated it to the National Gallery in 1906. It also known as the ‘Madonna of the Tower’ because of the building just visible in the left background.
The picture is in a ruinous and repainted condition, in part due to its being transferred from panel to canvas in the eighteenth century. It is so damaged that it gives little idea of how it once looked. However, study of the cartoon for the painting (British Museum, London), which is also damaged, sheds some light on its original quality.
The shaded background of the drawing indicates that Raphael intended the figures to be bathed in a soft atmospheric twilight, similar to that associated with the works of Leonardo. The lighting would have emphasised the rounded contours of their faces, which now appear rather flat in the painting. The characterisation of the mother and child is also easier to appreciate in the drawing, which more clearly contrasts the joyous embrace of the child with the more pensive response of his mother. The slight turn of the Virgin’s face away from her son expresses the terrible burden of the knowledge of his fate that she must endure. The drawing has a psychological depth that has been lost in the damaged painting, but which reveals why this was one of Raphael’s compositions that appealed most powerfully to later artists.
The original cartoon for this painting may have been used later by Domenico Alfani as the basis for his Virgin with Saints Gregory and Nicholas, dated 1518 (Galleria Nazionale, Perugia). Alfani had collaborated with Raphael and is known to have been sent a compositional drawing by him to help in the painting of an altarpiece. The outlines for the figures in the drawing for the Mackintosh Madonna have been carefully pricked and also incised with a stylus, indicating that the drawing was transferred in order to be copied for painting. The back of the sheet of paper would be rubbed with black chalk so it acted like carbon paper and then the outlines marked with a stylus or pricked with a pin, leaving the outlines on the panel to be painted. The method Raphael used for transferring the design for the National Gallery painting cannot be determined – the incised and indented contours on the drawing may relate to a later copy, such as that made by Alfani.
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