In this painting, Raphael transforms the familiar subject of the Virgin and Child into something entirely new. The figures are no longer posed stiffly and formally as in paintings by earlier artists, but display all the tender emotions one might expect between a young mother and her child. The pair are seated in a bedchamber in an Italian Renaissance palace, and exchange carnations, which are symbolic of divine love and of Christ’s Passion (his torture and crucifixion).
This small picture may have been intended to be held in the hand for prayer and contemplation. A manuscript inventory dating to the early 1520s states that it was made for ‘Maddalena degli Oddi, a nun in Perugia'.
It is freely based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg). For more than a century it was believed to be a copy, but it was rediscovered in 1991 as an original painting by Raphael.
The scene takes places in the young Virgin Mary’s bedchamber in an Italian Renaissance palace. She sits on a bench or box at the end of her bed (the green bed curtain is knotted up behind her) and is shown delighting in her infant son, who sits on a soft white pillow on her lap. The brightly lit pale complexions of the Virgin and Christ Child stand out against the cool dark interior wall. Through the arched window is a sunny view with fortified ruins clinging to a rocky hill. There is a tiny chip in the grey stone window ledge.
Christ gazes at the delicate flowers offered by his mother – the pinks or carnations after which the painting is named. Known in Greek as dianthus, the flower was a traditional symbol of divine love and was reputed to have sprung from the earth where the Virgin’s tears fell during Christ’s Passion. In secular portraits the dianthus symbolised friendship and often betrothal, which would also be appropriate here, as the Virgin was venerated as both the mother and bride of Christ. This idea derived from the Old Testament Song of Solomon, in which the divine bridegroom is united with his heavenly bride – the green bed here recalls the green wedding bed of the biblical text.
The figures are not lit with light from the window but from an artificial light source at the upper left. The subtle description of light and shadow on the flesh and draperies reveals Raphael’s familiarity with Netherlandish painting. The knotted bed curtain, the view through the window with the illusionistic chip in the sill and the Virgin’s downcast, crescent-shaped eyes also reflect Northern European examples. However, the chief influence here is Leonardo da Vinci’s Benois Madonna (State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), on which Raphael’s composition is closely based. The correspondence is so close as to suggest that Raphael was able to study Leonardo’s picture at first hand, though it was painted some 30 years earlier. The cool colours, artful lighting, lively interaction of the figures and arrangement of the draperies all reflect Leonardo’s work. Raphael has linked the heavenly and earthly worlds of the interior and exterior through his harmonious use of colour. His choice of blue-grey and yellow for the Virgin’s clothes (rather than the traditional red and blue) may also relate to Leonardo’s similarly unorthodox choice of colours in the Benois Madonna.
The painting, which is in excellent condition, is not much bigger than a Book of Hours (a personal prayer book), with the refinement of a manuscript illumination, and may have been intended to be held in the hand for prayer and contemplation. A manuscript inventory dating to the early 1520s states that it was made for ‘Maddalena degli Oddi, a nun in Perugia’. Maddalena was named by the sixteenth-century art biographer Vasari as the patron of Raphael’s Coronation of the Virgin, painted for the Oddi Chapel in S. Francesco al Prato, Perugia, in about 1503–4, and now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. The National Gallery’s tender painting, with its imagery of the chaste Virgin, betrothed by the exchange of divine flowers with divine love in the form of her baby son, would be an appropriate prompt to prayer for a virtuous widow who had herself espoused Christ by taking religious vows.
The painting can be dated on stylistic grounds to around 1506–7 and could very well have been produced at the same time that Raphael was designing and delivering the Entombment altarpiece for the Baglioni family, whose chapel in S. Francesco al Prato is opposite that of the Oddi family which housed Raphael’s Coronation.
The painting was well known and celebrated during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and many early copies and prints were made after it. Although believed by its previous owners at Alnwick Castle to be by Raphael, its reputation was eroded by the doubts of scholars until it was considered to be only a copy of a lost work by the artist. However, Dr Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery from 2008 to 2015, rediscovered The Madonna of the Pinks in 1991 and his attribution to Raphael was verified by scientific investigation of the underdrawing and the pigments, which are both typical of Raphael’s work before he went to Rome.
The presence of exceptionally free and creative underdrawing – the drawing made by the artist before they began to paint – was revealed by infrared reflectography, a late twentieth-century scientific technique that no earlier copyist could anticipate. Much of the underdrawing in The Madonna of the Pinks is typical of Raphael’s style. It includes features familiar from many drawings, cartoons and other underdrawings by him: for example, broad arcs to lay in the principal forms, smaller arcs indicating the knuckles of the hands, hatching to denote areas of shadow and hook-ended marks to indicate drapery folds. Microscopic investigation shows that the underdrawing was carried out in metalpoint, a medium Raphael frequently used.
The underdrawing shows that Raphael changed his mind about the composition several times. In particular, he radically rethought the costume. He then followed the principal outlines of the underdrawing but made several changes and revisions during the course of painting. A major change was the bed curtain, which was originally coloured purple. These types of changes – a well-recognised part of the creative process – would not be present in a copy because a copyist would be working from the final version.
The pigments in the paints have also been identified using microscopic investigation. They are all characteristic of paintings made in Florence and Umbria in the first years of the sixteenth century, when Raphael was working there. Later copyists would not have been able to obtain many of the pigments he used, and would have had to employ later pigments, unknown in Renaissance Italy. Most importantly, the picture contains a highly unusual dark grey pigment with a shiny, sparkling appearance, identified recently as powdered metallic bismuth, which is present in other works by Raphael. The use of bismuth as a pigment is confined, so far as is known, to early sixteenth-century central Italian painting.
All these features and evidence mean that The Madonna of the Pinks cannot be attributed to another artist of Raphael’s time, or one at a later date.
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