The World’s Most Beautiful Woman Turns 500

Dresden celebrates Raphael’s Sistine Madonna with a major exhibition

“Sistine Madonna” by Raphael, painted 1512/13Beauty is a strange thing. The Regensburg psychologist Martin Gründl has analyzed Raphael’s Sistine Madonna from the point of view of research on what makes things attractive, and his results are not very fl attering: “Her build is much too stocky for the taste of Western industrialized nations”. While her baby face still corresponds to the current ideal of beauty, she doesn’t seem to be a good model. Researching attractiveness is, of course, a fi ne preoccupation, but Professor Gründl seems to not have a clue when it comes to looking at the painting from an historical and artistic point of view. No other image in the world has been so popular as long as Raphael’s masterpiece, in which Mary, magically and sacredly illuminated, seems to be walking on clouds. As “The World’s Most Beautiful Woman” Dresden is now exhibiting her, the ‘global myth’, on the occasion of her 500th birthday. The 8’10” x 6’8″ painting has received a new gilded frame and a new glass shield and been moved from her customary place on the fi rst fl oor of the Old Masters Gallery to the Hall of Tapestries.

Room for the great Raphael

It is not easy to celebrate a painting that everyone believes he/she knows. The exhibition approaches the work and its impact in several steps. She is accompanied by several contemporary works from Rome: these include the ‘Garvagh Madonna’ from London’s National Gallery, the fragment of an angel from the Vatican, a drawing from the Albertina in Vienna or Raphael’s ‘Donna Velata’ from the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, which probably served the Sistine Madonna as a model. Other exhibition topics include the history of its acquisition and the origin of the myth.

And that took time. For almost 250 years, the painting adorned the high altar of the monastery church of San Sisto in Piacenza in northern Italy. It was probably Pope Julius II himself who commissioned it in the summer of 1512; the commission went to the then not yet 30 year old Raphael (1483-1520).

At first the world took little notice of this masterpiece. Cultural tourists did not go to Piacenza, and there were no engravings of the work. It took the Elector of Saxony, August III (1696-1763), to kiss her awake. He wanted the painting. In 1746 he had opened his art gallery, and, as was the custom, he was in competition with the leading royal houses to have the best works of art. According to Andreas Henning, curator of Italian Paintings in the Old Masters Gallery of the Zwinger, August’s new museum lacked a representative painting by Raphael. It took two years of tough negotiations, and five weeks to complete the shipment from Piacenza to Dresden. Finally, at the end of February 1754, the painting arrived in Dresden. “Make room for the great Raphael!” is what August III is supposed to have said when the work arrived; it is said that he had his throne shoved aside for it.

For the longest time, however, the star of the first gallery was Correggio’s ‘Holy Night’. As Henning says: ‘Back then, the Sistine Madonna was basically unknown’. It took the classical and romantic writers – Schlegel, Herder – to discover and then celebrate the work. Goethe wrote: ‘Had Raphael painted only this work, it would have immortalized him”. There began the era of reproduction in graphics, drawing, and oil. Legends were born. Some speculated that the Madonna had appeared to Raphael in a dream, others suspected the daughter of a baker in Trastevere (the ‘seamy’ side of Rome), in other words, Raphael’s favorite mistress, as the poet William Heinse has opined. None of this is verifi able.

It was only in the 19th century, with new technical possibilities of mass reproduction, that the painting finally became an icon. It came to hang in almost every German home, and its popularity has continued unabated until our day, says Henning. In that sense, it is more endurable than Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’, which only became so well-known after 1911, when it was stolen from the Louvre. Even Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ or the “Birth of Venus” by Botticelli only became pop stars in the second half of the 20th century.

A world brand

The Sistine Madonna did not get her name because it was in the Sistine Chapel, but from the fact that Raphael painted Pope Sixtus II. into the painting (on the left). Raphael created a figure ‘in limbo’, between the divine and human spheres, between heaven and earth.

Posterity is ready again, with, depending on your taste, one form of hell or another. The exhibition shows this with humor. On display are Christmas tree balls, soap tins, CD covers, boxes, snow globes, stamps or tags. Almost all use the motif of the two angels on clouds, at the bottom, which Raphael painted at the end with quick, thin brushstrokes. This is a picture in picture; since the 1800s, the angels have been reproduced without the Madonna, and there are millions who don’t connect them with the Madonna at all.

The two are a world brand. ‘We show the use of the motif in autograph books, from jewelry to today’s use as a marketing tool,’ says Henning. For him, the limits of bad taste are exceeded when the angels are printed on toilet paper or even toilet seats. On the other hand, he fi nds it ‘wonderful’ that Ernie and Bert have been shown in the angels’ pose.

An exceptional artist

Can curator Henning, after all the academic study of the masterpiece and amidst the hustle and bustle of the exhibition still sink into the picture? Henning doesn’t hesitate: ‘Absolutely. This is a picture I can always look at as if it were new’. Actually Raphael had wanted to put the Madonna on a high stone throne and place all the saints around her, the so-called ‘sacred conversation’. It had been tried and tested for 100 years. ‘But Raphael created something new, he painted a vision. The curtain opens. The Madonna walks across the clouds, comes from the sky and carries the baby Jesus as the incarnation’. Raphael was obviously trying to overwhelm the viewers’ senses. ‘And he succeeds so well that the picture is still overpowering. Raphael was an exceptional artist.’

Photo Credit: Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden; Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister; Foto: Estel/Klut

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