Where? Gallery 20 of the National Gallery of Art
Commissioned by? Probably Paolo Giovio, though it could also have been Pope Julius II.
What do you see? The beautiful Mary sits on a tree trunk with her son Jesus on her right leg, and Saint John sits next to them on the ground. Mary is dressed in a pink and blue dress, Saint John in a fur robe, and Jesus is naked. Mary is holding a prayer book in her left hand. She looks at the cross that Saint John seems to hand to Jesus. Saint John looks at Jesus and Mary, while Jesus looks at Saint John. Their gazes seem somewhat sad as if they are thinking about what is going to happen to Jesus at the end of his earthly life. Notice the index finger of Jesus that is pointing upwards to God while he receives the cross. Saint John holds some flowers, including anemones and white dandelions. The painting is very peaceful with a calm sky, and the trio is surrounded by flowers, including cyclamen (to the left of Saint John), blue violets (in the left foreground), and lady’s bedstraw (the tall plants on the right). The landscape is probably inspired by the Tiber valley near Rome.
Backstory: Raphael painted this work while he was in Rome, at the same time that he worked on the famous Raphael Rooms in the Vatican Museums. It is most likely that this painting was commissioned by Paolo Giovio and gifted to the church of the Olivetani in Nocera dei Pagani when he was appointed a bishop there. However, some people also argue that it could have been commissioned by Pope Julius II who Raphael was working for in 1510. The name of the painting, Alba Madonna, is given because the painting was owned by the aristocratic Spanish House of Alba during the 18th century. As Raphael painted many Madonna-themed paintings, this name differentiates it from the others.
Symbolism: The white dandelion below Saint John’s elbow is a symbol of the Passion, which is the period at the end of the life of Jesus when he enters Jerusalem until his crucifixion. The cross that Saint John is handing to Jesus is a symbol of what is waiting for Jesus later in his life when he will be crucified. This cross is similar to the one that Raphael included in the Madonna del Prato. The anemones that Saint John is holding are a symbol of resurrection to indicate that Jesus will resurrect from the dead. Flowers in the foreground also surround the trio. The cyclamen refers to the love and sorrow of Mary, the blue violets to her faithfulness, and the lady’s bedstraw refers to the manger in which Jesus was put after his birth. The tree trunk on which Mary is sitting may be oak and could refer to the symbol of the Della Rovere house of Pope Julius II. However, it is not certain that this is indeed an oak trunk and whether Pope Julius II commissioned this painting.
Tondos? This painting of Raphael is a so-called tondo. A tondo is used to refer to a circular painting over two feet (60 cm) in diameter. The word ‘tondo’ is derived from the Italian word ‘rotondo’, which means round. A tondo helps the viewer to focus on the center of the painting. The circular shape is also perceived to be an ideal and infinite shape. These are the reasons that the tondo was often used for Madonnas as the focus of those paintings had to be on Mary and Jesus. You can also see in this painting that the composition of Mary, Jesus, and Saint John is quite circular. The tondo format was mainly popular in the 15th and 16th century and has been used by painters such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Raphael. One of the most well-known tondos is the Doni Tondo by Michelangelo in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. Another example is the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli which is also in the Uffizi.
Who is Raphael? Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was a painter and architect.
In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome to paint for Pope Julius II. Before that, he had spent several years in Florence. In 1514 he became the lead architect for Pope Leo X. He was tasked with the design of the new St. Peter's Basilica. However, after his death, most of his work was abandoned and Michelangelo took over. He is well-known for his frescos and Madonnas, such as the Madonna of the Goldfinch in the Uffizi Museum. Together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, he is considered to be the most talented artist of the High Renaissance. His work has especially had a great influence on artists in the 17th till 19th century, including Jacques-Louis David.
Fun fact: Raphael has created many religious paintings during his career, and especially many Madonnas. However, Raphael did not always live like a religious person. In fact, rumors are that he had many affairs with women while he was in Rome. In 1514 he got engaged to Maria Bibbiena, but he never married her. Vasari also writes in his book that Raphael died (which may have been on his birthday) after a night of excessive sex. After the wild night he got sick but did not want to tell the doctors the cause of it. As a result, they did not provide him with the right treatment and he died.