Madonna of Belvedere Madonna del Prato

Keywords: MadonnaBelvedereMadonnadelPrato

Work Overview

Madonna del prato (The Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist; Madonna in the Meadow)
Artist Raphael
Year 1506
Type oil on board
Dimensions 113 cm × 88 cm (44 in × 35 in)
Location Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

The Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist is a 1506 painting by Raphael, now held in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. It is also known as Madonna del prato (Madonna of the Meadow) or Madonna del Belvedere (after its long residence in the imperial collection in the Vienna Belvedere).

The three figures in a calm green meadow are linked by looks and touching hands. The Virgin Mary is shown wearing a gold-bordered blue mantle set against a red dress and with her right leg lying along a diagonal. The blue symbolizes the church and the red Christ's death, with the Madonna the uniting of Mother Church with Christ's sacrifice. With her eyes fixed on Christ, her head is turned to the left and slightly inclined, and in her hands she holds up Christ, as he leans forward unsteadily to touch the miniature cross held by John. The poppy refers to Christ's passion, death and resurrection.

The painting of the Madonna in the Meadow (also called the Madonna Belvedere) was executed by a twenty-something Raphael while in Florence.  The scene shows the Virgin with Christ and St. John the Baptist in a highly serene and tender moment against a landscape backdrop which places the scene in a Tuscan setting.  In addition to being the cousin of Christ, St. John the Baptist was the patron of Florence, making his presence here in a Florentine setting very appropriate.

The figures in the painting are arranged in a pyramidal composition.  This is something that Raphael picked up from Leonardo, particularly his popular cartoon showing the Virgin, St. Anne, and their children, which was located in another church in Florence.  Raphael also picked up on Leonardo’s use of fine chiaroscuro to model the figures so that they appear to take up actual space within the picture.  Unlike Leonardo, however, Raphael used a lighter color palette that was more in keeping with the palette used by his teacher, Perugino.

Raphael has used aerial perspective to show how the landscape is far away from us, the viewer.  As we look back, we can see just how idyllic and peaceful the setting really is.  The landscape in the background is filled with graceful curves, and this is connected to the figures through the Madonna’s neckline and shoulders, which also curve softly.

Overall, both the physical setting and the subject matter are pleasant to look at.  There is no pain, struggle, or even Leonardo’s mysterious tones present here.  The only uneasy sign is the Christ Child grasping the cross of St. John, which is likely a means of foretelling the future Passion of Christ.  The kind of peacefulness and harmony of the painting was held in high regard by Renaissance patrons, and after Raphael completed this work he would be asked to paint a fresco for an even more powerful patron – the pope – at the Vatican stanze in Rome.

The Madonna of the Meadow is the first of a series of full-length figure compositions that portray the apocryphal encounter between the Child Jesus and the boy Baptist. The boy Baptist is supposed to have recognized and worshipped Christ as the Redeemer even in their childhood. Raphael makes this clear by letting Christ take the cross from John.

Michelangelo's influence on Raphael is evident in this composition. The pyramidal structure of the figure group recalls Leonardo (whose cartoon for the St Anne was shown in 1506 in the Church of Santissima Annunziata). But Raphael exerts his own balancing capacity on the Leonardesque volumetric conception, infusing it with the idyllic serenity which characterizes his paintings from this period. The work as a whole is structurally harmonic, from the figure group (dominated by the affectionate figure of the Virgin Mary who supports the Child and glances tenderly at the young St John) to the sweeping landscape (made luminous by the mirror-like lake which stretches from one side of the panel to the other). The twisting figures of the two children clearly reflect Michelangelo's figurative research.
The Christ Child is lovingly stroking a goldfinch that the boy Baptist has just given him. A symbol of the Passion (the goldfinch, because it feeds among thorns) is thus combined in a scene that can at a first level of meaning be seen simply as children at play.

The composition follows that of the Madonna of the Meadow, with the essential difference that the children in the Madonna of the Goldfinch are more firmly united with the central figure of the Virgin. The colour is more lively than that of the Madonna of the Meadow and foreshadows the colourist character of Raphael's Roman paintings. The landscape, and particularly the architectural forms it contains, reflects the influence of Flemish art, even though it is still structured in the Umbrian manner This influence was as alive in Florence as it was in Urbino in the second half of the Quattrocento. It is perhaps most visible in the sloping roofs and tall spires, unusual elements in a Mediterranean landscape. The influence of Michelangelo is again evident in the well structured figure of the infant Christ. It was to become even more evident in the works which followed.

Tender images of the Virgin Mary with her son are among the most beloved in Christian art. Even early images from about the 6th century AD depict her gently cradling or supporting a haloed child or infant on her lap. Devotion to Mary in her dual role as the human mother of Jesus and a divine entity reached a peak in the 14th to 16th centuries, creating great demand for depictions of the mother and child. The term Madonna is Italian for “my lady” and was conferred as a title of respect or high rank, but came to be synonymous with the mother of the holy child and also with the physical representation or manifestation of the two. Small works of art depicting this theme were generally objects of personal worship and prayer intended for intimate use in a private setting, usually a home or a small chapel. Larger and more expansive scenes were produced for altars in public churches, often commissioned by a family or guild as an expression of devotion and an outward display of wealth. Over the centuries different themes emerged, but always with the mother and child as central figures in the scene.

In this feature, the visual story of the Madonna and Child is broadly interpreted through the National Gallery of Art’s extensive collection of paintings, sculpture, and graphic arts. These works portray the full range of Madonnas, from Byzantine depictions of an elegant Queen of Heaven holding a miniature adult to later representations of a humble young woman seated directly on the ground with a cherubic child. Artists expanded their narratives and imaginative skills with stories of Christ’s birth in a cave or a stable surrounded by rough shepherds or richly-dressed magi and the Holy Family’s escape into Egypt. A renewed interest in the natural world from the 15th century onward led other artists to explore nature in greater and more realistic detail. Related themes, like the Holy Family (including enigmatic Joseph), the Madonna and Child surrounded by saints, and heavenly visions, are also discussed. Works of art in this feature range in date from the mid- to late 13th century to the 18th century, and while primarily Italian in origin, there are also Netherlandish, German, Dutch, and Spanish examples.