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.

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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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