The Sistine Madonna

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna

We have to thank Lady Hayes for so very generously presenting St Andrew’s with this strikingly beautiful copy of Raphael’s famous painting, the Sistine Madonna. It hangs so well in its position in church that it seems the wall space was just made for it! We are delighted to have it.

Here is a short history and description of the original painting:

Its date is c.l5l3-14, and for many years it hung over the high altar of the Abbey Church of San Sisto at Piacenza, thus dedicated to one of the most celebrated early martyrs of the Church, St Sixtus (San Sisto). So it is the figure of the Roman martyr (Sixtus II, 280 AD) that we see on the left of the picture. The figure on the right gives us a clue to the motive and purpose of the painting. She is St Barbara about whom an unsubstantiated legend tells of her being rescued from a tower where her pagan father had imprisoned her when it became known that she had become a Christian. From other legends of her martyrdom too she became venerated as the patron saint of the hour of death and liberation from the earthly prison. (We can just make out behind her the battlement of her prison tower.)

At the base of the picture, under the gaze of St Barbara two child angels look upwards, their arms resting upon a length of wood at the left end of which is the papal tiara ostensibly that of the martyr bishop, However the face of the figure of St Sixtus is apparently made in the likeness of Pope Julius II — his shaggy and unkempt beard as it was in Julius‘ last illness-ridden days.

For this picture was, first of all, a painting to commemorate and enhance the burial of Julius (who needed all the enhancing he could get!) The length of wood at the foot of the picture is his coffin lid, the tiara resting (as with the crown of a king) over where the head would be. The cope that Sixtus is wearing is adorned with oak leaves and an acorn superimposes the tiara, for these were the emblems of Julius‘ family, the della Rovere family from Piacenza.
It is likely that Julius in anticipation of his death had commanded Raphael (for he was Raphael’s patron) to paint the picture to adorn Julius‘ coming obsequies, and Julius made the request that the picture afterwards should hang in the church of the family city.

One is reminded of something of a parallel with King John of England who was buried in a monk’s habit and between the tombs of Worcester Cathedral’s’ two saints, Wulstan and Oswald, so hoping for a smoother passage to the hereafter. Thus it would seem that Julius, his deliberate likeness transferred to the features of the- genuinely pious and revered San Sisto, also hoped to ensure his smoother passage under the hoped-for influence of the martyr bishop’s own deserved welcome to Paradise, the overall subject of the painting!

But really, the painting was a marvellous excuse for Raphael’s genius to reach new heights in the central figure — ‘The Floating Madonna’, Mother and Holy Child in clouds of glory looking upon us with eyes of unusual size, depth and luminosity, of calm and understanding. This was truly an apex in Raphael’s stupendous output. As one description has it, the rich tonalities of gold and green, grey and blue, give the painting an air of peace and fulfilment. This remarkable picture of divine motherhood has caused the Sistine Madonna to be regarded as one of Raphael’s supreme creations, and marks a high point in High Renaissance art.

Just looking at this splendid copy surely fills us with a wish to see the original. To do this we must apparently go to Dresden where it said the painting is now preserved safe, thank God. (Is anyone arranging a coach trip to Dresden?!)

M F H