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In early days an Italian in addressing a lady used the word Madonna, which, like the French word Madame, means My Lady. Now he says Signora; Madonna would have to him an old-fashioned sound. To the rest of the world this word Madonna has come to be applied almost wholly to the Virgin Mary, with or without the child Jesus; and as Raphael painted a great many pictures of the Madonna for churches or other sacred places, a name has been given to each, drawn usually from some circumstance about it.

The Madonna of the Chair is so called because in this picture the Virgin is seated. She is sitting in a low chair, holding her child on her knee, and encircling him with her arms. Her head is laid tenderly against the child's, and she looks out of the picture with a tranquil, happy sense of motherly love.

The child has the rounded limbs and playful action of the feet of a healthy, warm-blooded infant, and he nestles into his mother's embrace as snugly as a young bird in its nest. But as he leans against the mother's bosom and follows her gaze, there is a serious and even grand expression in his eyes which Raphael and other painters always sought to give to the child Jesus to mark the difference between him and common children.

By the side of the Madonna is the child who is to grow up as St. John the Baptist. He carries a reed cross, as if to herald the death of the Saviour; his hands are clasped in prayer, and though the other two look out of the picture at us, he fixes his steadfast look on the child, in ardent worship.

Around each of the heads is very faintly seen a nimbus, as it is called; that is, the old painters were wont to distinguish sacred persons by a circle about the head. Sometimes, as here, the circle is a golden line only; sometimes it is a gold band almost like a plate against which the head is set. This circular form took the name Nimbus from the Latin word for a cloud, as if the heads of sacred persons were in an unearthly surrounding. It is also called a halo. Such a representation is a symbol or sign to indicate those higher and more mysterious qualities which are beyond the artist's power to portray.

This simple composition is a perfect round, and if one studies it attentively one will see how curved and flowing are all the lines within the circle; even the back of the chair, though perpendicular, swells and curves into roundness. It is by such simple means as this that the painter gives pleasure to the eye. The harmony of the lines of the composition makes a perfect expression of the peaceful group centred thus about the divine child.

Pitti Gallery, Florence

It is a home scene and one such as Raphael might have seen in Rome in his own time. Not unlikely he saw a mother enfolding her child thus when he was taking a walk at the quiet end of day, and caught at once a suggestion from the scene for a Madonna. There is indeed an old legend which grew up about this picture, relating the supposed circumstances under which Raphael found a charming family group which served him as a model, and which he rapidly sketched upon the head of a cask; the circular form of the picture is thus accounted for. Whether or not this pretty story is true, it is certain that the Madonna of the Chair is a true picture of home life either in Raphael's time or even in our own day. The mother wears a handkerchief of many colors over her shoulders, and another on her head like the Roman scarf one still sees nowadays.

We may see what delight and reverence Madonna pictures like this have awakened as we read the words of an old chant. In quaint diction and with fanciful imagery the writer tried to express his feelings in the presence of a painting which, if not this veritable Madonna of the Chair, was certainly very like it.

"When I view the mother holding
In her arms the heavenly boy,
Thousand blissful thoughts unfolding
Melt my heart with sweetest joy.
"As the sun his radiance flinging
Shines upon the bright expanse,
So the child to Mary clinging
Doth her gentle heart entrance.
"See the Virgin Mother beaming!
Jesus by her arms embraced,
Dew on softest roses gleaming,
Violet with lily chaste!
"Each round other fondly twining.
Pour the shafts of mutual love,
Thick as flowers in meadow shining,
Countless as the stars above.
"Oh, may one such arrow glowing,
Sweetest Child, which thou dost dart
Thro' thy mother's bosom going,
Blessed Jesus, pierce my heart."