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Raphael’s twin Madonnas reunited for pope’s visit to Germany

September 29, 2011

Berlin

To mark Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Germany later this month, an exhibition in Dresden has reunited two of the Renaissance’s most important Madonna and Child paintings for the first time in almost 500 years.

Raphael, a key figure in Renaissance art, completed the Madonna di Foligno (named after the Italian town of Foligno, where it resided for two centuries) in 1512. The artist was commissioned by Pope Julius II to create the Sistine Madonna in the same year. (It hung in the monastery of San Sisto, in Piacenza.) The two altarpieces are thought to have stood side-by-side in Raphael’s workshop.

With Benedict’s support, the Madonna di Foligno traveled from the Vatican Museums and is now on display alongside its “sister” painting, which has resided at the Dresden State Art Collections for 250 years. Art experts say it is an unprecedented event, since the Foligno Madonna usually never leaves the Vatican.

Organizers say the exhibition, entitled “Heavenly Splendor,” provides a unique opportunity to see how Raphael’s depiction of the Virgin evolved. The Madonna di Foligno is “a very classical painting, with an earthly scene over which the sky opens to reveal a vision of the Madonna and Child,” said curator Andreas Henning in an interview. “What makes the Sistine Madonna so unique is that the earth is no longer represented. The whole painting is a vision.”

The Sistine Madonna is one of Raphael’s most celebrated works and has become a symbol of the city of Dresden. A detail of two cherubs gazing wistfully up at the Virgin from the bottom of the canvas is universally familiar from reproductions on greetings cards, dishtowels and t-shirts.

Also on display are paintings on the same theme by the Italian master Caravaggio and German painters Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Duerer and Matthias Gruenewald. “The Virgin and Christ Child was the most painted motif in the Renaissance,” said Henning, who curated the show alongside the Vatican Museums’ Arnold Nesselrath. “Both north and south of the Alps, artists tried to create unique masterpieces dedicated to the Virgin.”

Rich with symbolic detail, paintings such as Gruenewald’s Stuppach Madonna, demonstrate how the northern masters differed in approach from their Italian contemporaries. “You won’t find such a deep symbolic interpretation of Madonna and Christ Child south of the Alps,” said Henning. “Raphael painted more for the eyes, to overwhelm the spectator with emotion for the beauty of the Virgin.”

Henning said the exhibition is proving a popular success, with lines forming before the museum’s opening each morning. “It’s really great to see visitors standing in the gallery in silence, comparing these paintings all together,” he said. “And for me as a curator, it’s a dream to bring these two paintings together in one exhibition.”

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