"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Monday, September 14, 2015

Art: The Sistine Madonna by Raphael

The August 2015 issue of Magnificat magazine featured this painting as its monthly art essay and I was really taken in.  This wonderful painting was painted for the Benedictine Monastery of San Sisto, and not the Sistine Chapel as its name might suggest.  It is sometimes referred to as the Madonna Standing on Clouds with Saints Sixtus and Barbara, and personally I think that’s a better name. 

There is so much to point out in this painting.  The structure is circular the Madonna and Child at the top of the circle, Pope Saint Sixtus IV looking upward, Saint Barbara looking downward, and the two icon angels looking back up to complete the circle.  The color scheme is interesting.  The yellows, greens, and browns contrast nicely with the Blessed Virgin’s blue gives the Holy Mother a position of prominence. 

There is an interesting contrast of the neat and tidy Saint Barbara with the disheveled Saint Sixtus.  The Blessed Virgin also seems to be mostly neat, except for her windblown garments, which connects her with the other female figure.  The hair on the Christ child and on the two angels are tousled and disarrayed, connecting them with the male figure.  What that means, I’m not sure.

The choice of the supporting figures is also interesting.  We know why Pope Saint Sixtus IV was chosen.  The painting was commissioned by his nephew and wanted to honor his uncle.  Sixtus is characterized as frail and human, which further connects him to the human child.  But why Saint Barbara?  I’m not sure.  We know her to be both a virgin and martyr.  Her elegance connects her with the Virgin, but her stateliness seems to surpass that of the Virgin.  The cute angels, fleshy and human-like, at the bottom are also connected with the incarnate Christ child, but their whimsical expressions seem to miss the significance and the gravity of the moment.

The drama is also interesting.  The Virgin and child seem to come from behind a green veil (suggesting the earth, perhaps) and walk down as if from heaven.  Sixtus is pointing out of the canvas to the viewer, pointing the Christ child to the beholder of the painting.  The infant Jesus clearly has an expression of being vexed.  The Magnificat essay, by a Fr. Michael Morris, O.P., professor at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology at Berkley, CA, explains the finger point and the Holy Child’s expression with this:

Recent scholarship has discovered that inside the basilica the painting was designed to hang opposite a scene of the crucifixion.  Thus the look of fear that envelops the infant Jesus reveals a natural human response to the sight of pain and death.

I wonder if that is correct.  Would Raphael paint a scene considering that another painting sitting opposite would explain the significance of his painting?  What if one of the paintings were to be relocated, as has his Sistine Madonna was relocated to Dresden, Germany in the 18th century?  Or what if someone decided to rearrange the chapel?  The significance of the pointing hand would be lost, and Raphael certainly would have considered that possibility.  Here’s what I think.  The earthly veil has been opened and we have made our way up toward heaven to face our eternal fate.  Suddenly you come upon the Virgin and child who have come to meet you, and your impulse is to join both Sixtus and Barbara in kneeling before the Lord.  I think Sixtus is pointing to us the observer, and Christ looks on in judgement. 

What do you think?


  1. Obviously, I did not study all the details as you outline them in this post. Maybe my brain does not work like that, Manny. I look at a picture/painting and either like it or not. I like this one.

    I don't look for details like the painting is circular and the Pope is dishevelled. Maybe, as an engineer you see things differently. Or maybe you're just cleverer than me; which is more likely.

    God bless.

    1. Interesting you should say that. Yes, my engineering background makes me want to analyze things to minute detail, but also my literature background has trained me to appreciate aesthetics, the way art (literature, music, art) is arranged and works. Thanks.

  2. Beautiful painting. I especially love the cherubs which are the more familiar images.

    1. Yes, those churubs are iconic. The Magnificat article said that they were the children of one of the models (St Barbara I think) who were in the studio at the time. Raphael apinted them with the expressions they had as they watched.