of the most frequently discussed and best-loved paintings of the Renaissance is
Raphael's so-called Sistine Madonna. For many people it remains the supreme
example of western painting, and its popularity is virtually as great as that
of the Mona Lisa.
All who have written about this picture have acknowledged
the strange and baffling expressions worn by Mary and the child Jesus, although
attempts to decipher their meaning have frequently been evasive "visionary
pictorial composition" was one interpretation. Whole anthologies have been devoted
to the problem.
Famous painters and authors, including Goethe,
Runge, Schlegel, C. G. Carus, Hebbel, Schopenhauer and R. A. Schröder (to name
only German commentators), not to mention a host of art historians, have attempted
to explain the painting, and others again have confessed, as Grillparzer did,
how much they "would love to get the bottom of the matter". Schopenhauer spoke
of the "terror-stricken" face of the boy Jesus; for the dramatist Hebbel, "The
child is wild, teeth clenched, eyes blazing..."
In the past, the pointing finger of the Holy Father
was almost always interpreted as a gesture commending the worshipping viewer to
the Madonna. It was also assumed that the Mother and Child were looking at the
viewer. But it is precisely here that the puzzle arises. Why does Mary look so
troubled? Why is the child, staring transfixedly out of the picture with his ruffled
hair, appear to shrink back?
Raphael painted the picture for the high altar
of S. Sisto in Piacenza. The small town had become part of the Vatican state in
1512, and the picture arose shortly after wards. Some see a portrait of Pope Julius
II in the figure of St. Sixtus on the left [detail below], looking up at
the Virgin and pointing out towards the viewer.
Only recently have the questions surrounding this
painting finally been resolved. As recent research by A. Prager has shown, the
key to the mystery lies in the position in which the altarpiece originally stood.
Taking again the intriguing question of what the Pope is pointing at and what
the Mother and Child are looking at, the answer is as astonishing as it is persuasive.
It has long been forgotten that, as in many churches, opposite the altarpiece
in S. Sisto and above the rood screen at the far end of the chancel there stood
a crucifix. The expressions of horror on the faces of Mother and Child are thus
their reaction to the sight of death.
It is interesting to note that, long before this
successful interpretation, it was a writer, and not an art historian, who came
closest to understanding the mystery: R. A. Schröder saw the "deepest horror"
written in the face of the child, "before which even Death itself is frightened