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Culture news, 09.09.2004 14:31

Raphael's Madonna with Christ and St John the Baptist

raphael 3 September 2004 - 10 October 2004

Within the context of the series Masterpieces from the World's Museums in the Hermitage a new exhibition has opened in Hall 231 to display Raphael's painting of The Madonna with Christ and St John the Baptist (The Madonna Alba) which is on loan from the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.).

The Madonna Alba is among the most famous works of Raphael (1483-1520) dating from his sojourn in Rome, where he arrived in 1508 at the invitation of Pope Julius II to paint the formal reception halls of the Vatican Palace. The Madonna Alba is traditionally dated to between 1509 - 1511. The presentation of the group of figures in a round format shows amazing mastery. This work is highly characteristic of the artist's quest for new decorative solutions in easel painting. The composition is placed within a circle (tondo) having a diameter of 94.5 m. The tondo form requires that the artist have a brilliant command of composition and it appears in a number of Raphael's works, for example in the State Hermitage's Madonna Conestabile. But in this early work what is determinant is in the foreground, whereas in the Madonna Conestabile we have an impression of spherical space. Here everything is subordinated to the circle poses, gestures, movement. Mary leans towards John the Baptist and embraces him in such a way that the personages fit into an invisible but apparent circle which harmonizes with the contours of the painting. As A. N. Benois wrote in his Guidebook to the Picture Gallery of the Imperial Hermitage (1910), This painting can be compared with a beautiful building in which everything is rhythmic, some parts support others, everything is robust and full of happiness, because it corresponds to some requirement for harmony that is programmed in us.

Though painted in Rome, apparently on a private commission, the painting was hanging in a church near Naples in 1528. In 1686 it was acquired by Gasparo de Haro y Guzman, the Marquis del Caprio, who was the Viceroy of Naples from 1682 to 1687. It was inherited by his daughter, who married the Duke of Alba. It was kept in the family's palace in Madrid for more than 100 years, until 1802. This explains the painting's second name, the Madonna Alba. In 1820 the painting ended up in the collection of a banker, William G. Coesvelt, from whom it was acquired in 1836 at the behest of Nicholas I, who wanted it for the Hermitage. For nearly a century the canvas adorned the Museum's permanent display of Italian art.

After the Revolution, in 1928 the Museum received a secret document listing art works to be sold off. There were 28 items. Number One was The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli. Number Two on the list was the Madonna Alba by Raphael. In 1931 the Madonna Alba together with a number of other works of art was acquired by the American billionaire and US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon. In 1937 Mellon donated around 20 paintings from the former collection of the Hermitage to the National Gallery of Art inWashington, including two masterpieces by Raphael - Saint George and the Madonna Alba.

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