I’m reading Geraldine Johnson, The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction (2005), which provides what can be described as the Official view (since we are using capital letters) of the Renaissance, the view from the academic institution. The book opens with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, one of the most widely known Renaissance works of art, and which is used to exemplify how different our modern interpretation of the picture is from that of Raphael’s contemporaries. Ms Johnson claims that while we moderns (and Goethe) treat such pictures as mystical objects worth of worship in their own right, Raphael’s contemporaries would have treated such a picture primarily as a devotional object.
What do you think? I disagree. I think we enjoy The Sistine Madonna because it appears to us to go beyond the tired and repetitive religious tradition of altarpieces within which it appears. There are plenty of devotional altarpieces from the Renaissance that we don’t look at twice nowadays, however successful they may have been as devotional objects.
Nor do we look at this painting as “almost mystical visual contemplation”. The two small putti provide a humorous tone to the whole painting, as does the exotic hat placed in the bottom left-hand corner. None of these objects is in the least other-worldly. They are gently humorous, and in some way reassuring: we feel this artist is at one with us, and these objects inform our interpretaion of the figures above. The image of the woman in the centre of the painting is certainly not other-worldly; certainly a recent arrival, most likely by some modern form of air-driven transport, with clothes billowing in the wind, but with weight and solidity (even if not depicted as standing on the ground). The whole picture has a theatrical air to it, almost the result of a conjuring trick where the woman has been made to appear using some wind-based magic.
“The concept of “Art” itself must be contextualised through the “period eye” of 15th- and 16th-century beholders.” I disagree. If we only saw the art with contemporary eyes, we would see a very different picture. Having just read Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, which was written only some twenty years after this painting was created, I don’t think this picture would have represented a devotional object for many of its viewers, and certainly not for Benvenuto Cellini, and probably not for the Pope either. Nowhere in Cellini is there any genuine religious feeling, simply the folk-tradition of a God who rewards victory. Instead, there was a deliberate cult of the beautiful object, which could be paid for and treasured. Cellini is excited throughout his account by the sheer expensiveness of the art that he produces. That is a very modern phenomenon, and one that seemed to be shared by more than one of the Popes who commissioned him. Devotion seems to have had little to do with it.