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Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c. 1510


The Alba Madonna

From the Middle Ages, artists used plants and flowers symbolically, and Raphael also uses them to amplify meaning. Shoots of Lady’s Bedstraw, a yellow wildflower with medicinal properties believed to ease childbirth, were said to have been found in the manger where Jesus was born.

Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c. 1510 (detail)

Cyclamen (top) alludes to the Virgin’s love and sorrow, and violets (bottom) remind us of her humility.

Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c. 1510 (detail)

Dandelions (top) recall the bitterness of the Passion, as do the deep red centers of the anemones (bottom) on John’s fur robe.

Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c. 1510 (detail)

In Rome, where The Alba Madonna was painted, Raphael had been able to view work in progress on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. We see the same robustness and large scale in Raphael’s figures. Compare the physical presence of the The Alba Madonna with pictures of the Virgin and Child Raphael painted in Florence only a few years earlier.

Madonna and child images
in the National Gallery of Art collection

Here monumentality lends seriousness of purpose—gravitas further underscored by Raphael’s evocation of ancient art. The Madonna’s complex pose recalls classical sculpture, and her dress is that of a Roman matron. Even her sandal is based on those worn by a celebrated ancient sculpture in the papal collection.

Such a mélange of diverse influences might, in the hands of a lesser artist, produce a work that is formulaic or lifeless, but The Alba Madonna is warmed by compassion and incandescent beauty. Its meaning is made human with an easy grace. No wonder subsequent generations found Raphael’s art an ideal of harmony and perfection.

About the Artist

Raphael, Self portrait (chalk heightened with white on paper). Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library.

Raffaelo di Giovanni Santi was the younger contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and with them epitomizes the High Renaissance in Italy. For most of the history of Western art, the easy grace and harmonious balance of Raphael’s style has represented an ideal of perfection. A man noted also for wit and charm, he has often been called the “prince of painters.”

Raphael must have studied first with his father, painter at the court of Urbino, an environment rich in the arts and humanist learning. The elder Santi died when the boy was 11. Whether Raphael entered the workshop of Perugino at that time or, as seems more likely, many years later when he was already an acknowledged artist, he quickly mastered Perugino’s delicate, ornamental style, with its open landscapes and gentle figures. It was said that contemporaries had trouble distinguishing Perugino’s work from Raphael’s, but Raphael’s compositions were more sophisticated even when he was a young artist.


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