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The Madonna and Child of Giovanni Bellini and Raphael

The Madonna and Child is perhaps the most consistently reproduced theme in the history of Western art. Its origins lie, according to legend, with the Apostle Luke — the patron saint of painters — who is supposed to have painted the Virgin as she appeared to him in a vision. Its earliest recorded representations are Byzantine in origin, with the Byzantines imitating classical secular portraiture in rendering the Madonna half-length. This had the advantage of focusing attention on the upper half of the body where reason resided, which was considered the more spiritual part of the human form (Goffen, 24-25). This restriction was to be passed from the Byzantines to the West where it would lead generations of artists to limit their representations of the Madonna and Child to half-length or bust-length images (Goffen, 25).

Two artists who have been particularly associated with the representation of this motif are Giovanni Bellini and Raphael. This essay will compare and contrast two representations of the Madonna and Child by each artist. It will be argued that the key difference between the two modes of representation is that Bellini subtly contextualizes his Madonna and Child within the broader narrative of the Gospels, while Raphael's images are "stand alone" representations of perfect beauty and love.

It is important, in any discussion of Bellini's various versions of his "Madonna and Child", to consider that these paintings were originally intended to be private devotional images. Certainly no artist has had such a deep and enduring relationship with the Madonna and Child motif as has Giovanni Bellini. Indeed, in the course of his life he — and/or his shop — produced over eighty compositions on this theme (Goffen, 23). His Madonnas, although traditional in their imagery, are very unusual.

It is perhaps for this reason that, in the words of one critic, their relationship seems "more theological than human" (Goffen, 24). For example, contrast the body language evident in Bellini's Madonna degli alberetti (Figure 1) with that of Raphael's Madonna della Sedia (Figure 2). Bellini's Madonna is holding her child carefully but nonetheless removed from her body, while Raphael's Madonna has her Christ Child wrapped in a close maternal embrace. There is clearly little maternal love evident in Bellini's painting, which is indicative of its many troubling aspects.

Perhaps the most unsettling features of the Madonna degli alberetti are the gazes of its subjects. The viewer is first drawn to Mary's face, and is puzzled by the ambivalence evident there. She is carefully watching her Child, but appears unsure about Him or about their relationship. The Child, for his part, is watching the viewer. Considering the directness of His gaze, some have wondered why His right arm is not lifted in blessing, as it is in so many other representations of this motif (Goffen, 53). Moreover, His gaze is not at all loving or childlike. Rather, it is the gaze of a tired old man who appears wary of what we might ask of Him. Note, in particular, the Child's left hand which appears caught in movement. Is He attempting to pull His mother's hand away, or to caress her fingers with His?

Although the imagery in Bellini's Madonna degli alberetti may appear, at first glance, to be conventional and straightforward, closer examination reveals a degree of psychological depth which few would have expected in a Madonna and Child painting. In contrast, the figures in Raphael's Madonna della Sedia (Figure 2) do not engage us with anything near the same level of interpretative complexity. Perhaps it is for this reason that nothing is known of the early history of this painting. Vasari does not mention it, and it received no attention until it appeared in the Medici collection in the late 16th century (Ettlinger, 162).

Whatever the reason for this critical oversight in his own day, this painting has subsequently become one of the most loved and reproduced of all Raphael's works. It demonstrates Raphael's characteristic preoccupation with light, in that setting the colorful figures in the foreground against the dark background emphasizes the warmth and humanity of these figures (Berti, 114). This painting is also remarkable for the fact that Raphael manages to represent the Madonna and Child within the unusual circular format of the roundel while making this seem perfectly natural. It is perhaps the work of a true master of a form to make the incredibly difficult seem childishly simple, and Raphael manages to achieve that within this work. The restriction of space, and the impact the circular border has upon the viewing of lines within the painting would be insurmountable obstacles to a lesser talent. However, Raphael's bending the head of the Madonna to fit her into the curve is represented as an image of maternal love in her bending closer to her son, and the vertical line of the chair supports the reclining Madonna and Child within the limitation of the roundel space.

As a technical achievement the Madonna della Sedia is supremely beautiful and balanced. However, it does not draw us with the same power and complexity of vision as does Bellini's Madonna degli alberetti (Figure 1). Raphael's Madonna and Child, however beautiful, are not particularly interesting as figures (save, perhaps, for the intriguingly realistic snub-nose of the Christ Child). Nor does it serve to illuminate answers to some of the puzzling questions presented by the Bellini's work. In an attempt to better understand Bellini's vision of the Madonna and Child motif, we will therefore examine another of his works on this theme, Madonna and Sleeping Child Enthroned (Figure 3).

Yet again, however, Bellini's innovations within the standardized characteristics of the Madonna and Child theme both challenge and engage the viewer. The Christ Child, although nude as He is so often in the works of this theme, is much older and more developed than usual. Moreover, as with the Madonna degli alberetti His pose challenges our capacity for interpretation. He is sleeping with such abandon that His arm is hanging loosely down over the Madonna's leg. Indeed, He appears almost ready to slip off His mother's lap.

This is a very interesting piece in that it violates the rule, noted above, concerning the representation of Madonna and Child as always half-length. Perhaps the reason for this may lie in the fact of its format for it originally formed the center of a triptych or polyptych (Robertson, 60). Much as was the case with Raphael's Madonna della Sedia, where Raphael was bound within the limitations of the circular roundel format, here Bellini is restricted by a format that emphasizes the vertical line at the expense of the horizontal. It is a format that is particularly appropriate for elongated images of Christ on the Cross, and so it is not surprising that Bellini should use a full-length image instead of the typical half-length image.

Nonetheless, the viewer is still puzzled by the pose of the Christ child. It is not until we situate it in terms of another of Bellini's beloved themes, that of the Pieta, wherein the adult Christ has been taken from the Cross and lies dead across His grieving mother's lap. In the Pieta the pose of Christ — with his arm hanging loosely at the side - is strikingly similar to the pose of the Sleeping Child in the Madonna with the Sleeping Child (Robertson, 61).

Clearly, Bellini intends us to approach his paintings of the Madonna and Child in the context of the larger Biblical narrative. From this perspective, the puzzling ambivalence of both the Madonna and the Child in his Madonna degli alberetti becomes understandable if we situate it in this context. The Madonna's uncertainty is understandable, given her understanding that she brought this child into the world only to watch him die, while the Christ Child's wary gaze at the viewer suggests a bitter knowledge of the difficulties and obstacles that await him on the road to Calvary.

In some superficial respects, Raphael's Bridgewater Madonna (Figure 4) echoes the pose of Bellini's Madonna and Sleeping Child Enthroned. The Child appears more grown than He did in the Madonna della Sedia, and his lying stretched out across His mother's lap clearly adds to the resemblance between the figures. However, the painting lacks the theological significance of Bellini's work, but, rather, we have a mother and child in a very human pose.

There is one aspect to the painting that marks its distinctiveness from the Madonna della Sedia — its use of light. Art historians note how Raphael invariably paid particular concern to light as a means of establishing significance and setting action in his works. However, in the Bridgewater Madonna, the darkness of the background overshadows the warming light of the main figures, while not appearing to contribute in any way to the meaning of the work. It may be speculated that this can be explained as a reflection of  an early work of the painter; when he was to paint his Madonna della Sedia a decade later, he had learned much more about the manipulation of light and shadow.

In conclusion, we have seen how both Bellini and Raphael made use of the Madonna and Child theme to their separate ends. Bellini was preoccupied with the interpretative significance of this images, and thus rendered them with a number of puzzling elements that would cause viewers to situate them within their theological context for explanation. Raphael's Madonna and Child paintings, however, are more testimonies to the painter's skills than complex theological texts. Raphael's works possess a beauty and a balance that renders his holy figures only too human as perfect incarnations of the love between mother and child.


Berti, Luciano. Raphael. Trans. Sylvia Sprigge. New York: W.W. Norton, 1961.

Ettlinger, Leopold, and Helen Ettlinger. Raphael. Oxford: Phaidon, 1987.

Goffen, Rona. Giovanni Bellini. New Haven: Yale U P, 1989.

Ponente, Nello. Who was Raphael? Trans. James Emmons. Geneva Editions d'Art Albert Skira, 1967.

Robertson, Giles. Giovanni Bellini. Oxford: Clarendon, 1968.

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