Raphael is perhaps best known for his grandiose Vatican frescoes, which depict famed ancient philosophers and foundational moments in Christian history. But a new exhibition at the Gemäldegalerie museum in Berlin hones in on a theme the artist returned to repeatedly during the early years of his career, when he had yet to relocate to Rome and solidify his reputation as a master of Renaissance art: gentle, intimate portraits of the Madonna.
The exhibition, titled “Raphael in Berlin,” is on the smaller side. According to Kate Brown of artnet News, just seven works are on display. Still, the show brings together a series of masterpieces rarely shown under the same roof. Five of the works were sourced from the Gemäldegalerie’s collection, while one is on loan from the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett and another from the National Gallery in London.
Born in Urbino in the late 15th century, Raphael showed immense talent from a young age. He eventually moved to Florence to study the works of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. There, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, he began painting a series of Madonnas featuring soft, round figures who were simultaneously infused with humanity and “raised to a sublime perfection and serenity.” Raphael would continue painting the Virgin Mary after he relocated to Rome at the behest of Pope Julius II, but these works were bolder, more expressive and energetic.
“With the [early] Madonnas together, we can better understand the development of Raphael as an artist before his Roman period,” Alexandra Enzensberger, curator of the exhibition, tells Brown.
Per the Associated Press, the show’s centerpiece of is the Terranuova Madonna tondo, a round painting Raphael created shortly after his arrival in Florence. The scene finds the Virgin Mary sitting with her son, flanked by an infant St. John and an unidentified child crowned with a halo. It will be displayed alongside Raphael’s preliminary drawing for the head of the Madonna, on loan from the Kupferstichkabinett, for the first time.
Raphael painted the Terranuova Madonna around 1505, but within a few short years, his style had become softer and more refined. In the Madonna Colonna, created circa 1508, the Virgin Mary’s hair has shifted from brown to blonde, and her movements are much more fluid. Christ, comparatively, grips his mother’s dress and turns towards the viewer as though in a spontaneous burst of motion.
The National Gallery painting, titled The Madonna of the Pinks (1506-1507), is a stunning example of the unique sensibilities Raphael brought to an iconic devotional scene. In contrast to the stiff figures painted by earlier artists, his Madonna and child are tender and affectionate. They sit in a bedchamber and exchange pink carnations—a symbol of divine love, according to the National Gallery.
“Raphael in Berlin” marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death on April 6, 1520. Museums around the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., London’s National Gallery and the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, are preparing to commemorate the occasion with shows of their own.
The Berlin exhibition isn’t the most expansive of these displays. But as Michael Eissenhauer, director-general of the Berlin State Museums, tells Deutsche Welle, “Raphael in Berlin” offers a “completely focused and extremely concentrated” look at the early years of a Renaissance icon.
“Raphael in Berlin” is on view at the Gemäldegalerie museum in Berlin through April 26, 2020.