THE SISTINE MADONNA

(RAPHAEL)

F.A. GRUYER

Raphael seemed to have attained perfection in the Virgin with the Fish; however, four or five years later, he was to rise infinitely higher and display something superior to art and inaccessible to science.

It was in 1518 that the Benedictines of the monastery of St. Sixtus ordered this picture. They had required that the Virgin and the Infant Jesus should be in the company of St. Sixtus and St. Barbara. This is how Raphael entered into their views.

Deep shadows were veiling from us the majesty of the skies. Suddenly light succeeds the obscurity, and the Infant Jesus and Mary appear surrounded by a brightness so intense that the eyes can scarcely bear it. Between two green curtains drawn to either side of the picture, amid an aureole of innumerable cherubin, the Virgin is seen standing upon the clouds, with her son in her arms, showing him to the world as its Redeemer and Sovereign Judge. Lower down, St. Sixtus and St. Barbara are kneeling on the clouds on either side. Nothing is visible of the earth, but it is divined by the gestures and glances of the two saints, who are pointing to the multitude for whom they are imploring the divine mercy. Two angels are leaning on a kind of balustrade whose horizontal line forms a solid plane at the base of the composition. Nothing could be more elementary than the idea of such a picture; the ancient symmetry and the most rigid parallelism are scrupulously observed. Raphael becomes almost archaic, and, while returning to the simplicity of primitive traditions, by the force of genius he confounds the scientific exaggeration that is already so close to decadence. Doubtless he had raised his eyes high every time he had taken antiquity as a model, but he raised them much higher still by becoming exclusively Christian again, and by comprehending that the humblest way is not only the surest, but also the most sublime. Why is such simple means so highly successful in exalting our feelings? Why is it, when looking at this picture, we have moments of divine oblivion in which we fancy ourselves in Heaven? That is what we must try to penetrate and comprehend.