Raffaello Sanzio's The Sistine Madonna by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Raffaello Sanzio's
The Sistine Madonna

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

The Sistine Madonna, by Raphael.
St. Sixtus (left), St. Barbara (right)

While it is seldom polite to mention a lady's age, the Sistine Madonna celebrated a landmark birthday last year when she turned 500. The years have treated her well. The painting is one of an established type known as a sacra conversazione, in which the viewer is granted a vision of the Madonna and Child conversing with selected saints in heaven.

In Raphael's version, a curtain has just been pulled back to reveal the Virgin coming towards us on the clouds, against a backdrop of a heavenly choir of cherubic heads. On her right, St. Sixtus, an early pope, looks upward at her and gestures actively outward toward us, the viewers outside the fictive heavenly space; and on her left, St. Barbara looks down contemplatively at the little angels who rest against the parapet that divides their space from ours.


Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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