There are a great many pictures by the old masters representing what is known as the Holy Family. This is a group consisting of the mother and child, with one or more additional figures. The third figure is sometimes the infant John the Baptist, or it may be Joseph the husband of Mary; a fourth figure is likely to be St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and sometimes all five of these are shown in a group.

That is the case with the painting of The Holy Family by Raphael, which is now in the Louvre gallery in Paris, and is called The Holy Family of Francis the First, because Raphael painted the picture for that king of France. It is not difficult to make out the several figures, for the painter has followed the natural order.

The light falls chiefly on the child Jesus, who is springing up, as Mary lifts him from his cradle. His happy, joyous face is raised with a glad smile to the down-glancing mother. She has eyes only for him, and into her face there has come a look of sweet gravity which helps one to see that this is more than the play of a mother and child.

Eagerly reaching forward to the golden-haired Jesus is the swarthy John the Baptist, his hands folded in the gesture of prayer, the cross which he carries as the herald of Jesus leaning against his breast, and a look of bright wonder in his face.

Leaning over and holding him is his mother, Elizabeth, whom the great painters were wont to figure as an old woman, after the description of her in the gospel as "well stricken in years." She also gazes down at her child with a like expression of deep feeling, as if she always carried about in her mind the wonderful scenes which attended his birth.

Behind the group is Joseph, the husband of Mary, in an attitude which is very common in the old pictures. He rarely seems to be a part of the group. He stands a little way off looking on, with a thoughtful air, as if he were the guardian of this pair. Sometimes he is shown with a staff or crutch, and it may be that here he rests his elbow on it, while his head leans upon his half-closed hand.

All these are distinguished by the nimbus which encircles the head of a sacred person, but the two other figures in the picture have no nimbus, for they are angels, as may be seen by the outstretched wing of one of them, and by the pure unearthly expression on their faces. One of these angels strews flowers over the child; the other, with hands crossed on the breast, is rapt in adoration.

The Louvre, Paris

There is an opening which shows the sky, and it almost seems as if the angels with crossed hands were listening to some divine melody that came in with the angelic visitors. The whole scene is bathed in light, and the longer we look the more we see the beauty of the lines which flow in the picture as if to some heavenly music. All is action save in the grave, contemplative figure of Joseph; and his serious, resting attitude by its contrast makes more evident the leaping child, the mother half stooping to lift him, John the Baptist pressing forward and Elizabeth gently restraining him, with the two flying, radiant angels.

The power which a great painting has over us often makes us ask, How did the painter do this? did he think of everything beforehand? did he paint the picture bit by bit, or did he rapidly sketch it all as he meant to have it, and then at leisure fill in the parts, and add this or that?

We know something of how painters work, and of the labor which they sometimes put into their pictures, rubbing out and painting over. A great master like Raphael always gives a sense of ease to his work, as though it cost him nothing. But we know also that he took the greatest pains as he took the greatest delight in his work.

It happens that there exist drawings made by Raphael when he was preparing to paint this very picture, and it is interesting to see how he went to work. He has a young woman in his studio take just the attitude which a mother would take who was about to lift her child. That he may be sure to draw the form correctly, he has her dress not fall below her knee, and she has bare arms. In this way he will know just how the arm and the knee will bend, and how the muscles will show. Then he makes another drawing with the dress falling to the ground, but with the arm bare. Finally he draws the arm with the sleeve over it.

It was by such studies that he made sure of drawing correctly. They are like exercises in grammar. But when he came to paint his picture, he had not to think much about the correctness of his drawing; his whole mind was intent upon making his peasant girl look as he imagined the Virgin Mary to look.