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“Small Cowper Madonna” by Raphael

Raffaello Madonna Cowper

“Small Cowper Madonna” by Raphael

The “Small Cowper Madonna” by Raphael depicts Mary and the Christ Child, in a 1500s Italian countryside. It was painted around 1505 during the High Renaissance. The composition is centred on the seated Madonna in a bright red dress; she is shown with fair skin and blonde hair. She is sitting comfortably on a wooden bench and across her lap is a dark blue drapery upon which her right hand delicately rests. There is also a sheer translucent ribbon elegantly flowing across the top of her dress and behind her head. The faintest golden halo miraculously surrounds her head. In her left hand, she holds the baby Christ, who embraces her with one arm around her back, the other around her neck. He also has blonde hair and is looking back over his shoulder with a coy smile.

Behind Mary and the Christ Child is a clear and bright day with a lake on the left in the background and on the right is a large impressive structure that looks like a Catholic church. Its dome and other structural elements are typical to Catholic architecture which all add to the atmosphere of religious divinity and grace. It is not known precisely why the Small Cowper Madonna was painted. It was probably either a private commission or for the general art market. Images of the Madonna and Child were often given as wedding presents. It is widely thought that the church on the right-hand side of the painting is the church of San Bernardino, where Raphael was born and near where he grew up in Urbino. In this painting, Raphael expresses the influence of Leonardo in a broad, soft landscape.

This painting is known as the “Small Cowper Madonna” because it was the smaller of the two Raphael Madonna paintings owned by the English collector Lord Cowper (1738 -1789). The Large Cowper Madonna is also known as the “Niccolini-Cowper Madonna” it is larger and depicts Mary and Child, against a darker blue sky. Cowper’s art collection absorbed a great deal of his time and money, and his most important possessions were the two Raphael Madonnas acquired in the late 1700s. Today, both of these Raphael masterpieces are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Raphael

Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance. His work is admired for its clarity, ease of composition, and visual achievement of the Neoplatonic ideal of human grandeur. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he forms the traditional trinity of great masters of that period.

Raphael was enormously productive, running a large workshop and, despite his death at 37, he left a large body of work. Many of his works are found in the Vatican Palace, where the frescoed Raphael Rooms were the central, and the largest, works of his career. The best-known work is The School of Athens. He was hugely influential in his lifetime, although after his death, the influence of his great rival Michelangelo was more widespread. By the 19th centuries, Raphael’s more serene and harmonious qualities were again regarded as the highest models.

Raphael’s career falls into three phases, his early years in Umbria, then a period of about four years (1504–1508) absorbing the artistic traditions of Florence, followed by his triumphant twelve years in Rome, working for two Popes and their associates.

Christ Child in Art

The Christ Child in Art also known as Baby Jesus refers to Jesus Christ from his nativity to age 12. From about the 3rd or 4th century onwards, the child Jesus is frequently shown in paintings, and sculpture. Commonly these are nativity scenes showing the birth of Jesus, with his mother Mary, and her husband, Joseph. Depictions as a baby with the Virgin Mary, known as Madonna and Child, are iconographical types in Eastern and Western traditions.

The symbolism of the Child Jesus in art reached its apex during the Renaissance. The Holy Family was a central theme in the works of Leonardo da Vinci, and the Madonna and Child were themes in the works of Raphael.

The Madonna in Art

A Madonna is a representation of Mary, either alone or with her child Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word is from Italian “ma donna”, meaning ‘my lady’. The Madonna and Child type are very prevalent in Christian iconography, divided into many traditional subtypes especially in Eastern Orthodox iconography, often known after the location of a notable icon of the type.

The seated Madonna and Child is an image that became popular during the 15th century in Florence and was imitated elsewhere. These representations are usually of a small size suitable for a small altar or domestic use. They typically show Mary holding the infant Jesus informally and maternally. These paintings sometimes include symbolic reference to the Passion of Christ.

Reflections

  • How do you feel about a blond-haired Madonna and Child?
  • Which backgrounds do you prefer the simplified Raphael or the more complex works of Leonardo da Vinci?
  • Are Raphael’s Madonna and Child images more than just Christian icons?
  • How different is Raphael’s Renaissance view of the Madonna and Child image compared to traditional Byzantine-influenced icons?

Explore National Gallery of Art

Small Cowper Madonna

  • Title:                Small Cowper Madonna
  • Artist:              Raphael
  • Created:          1505
  • Medium:         Oil on panel
  • Periods:           High Renaissance
  • Dimensions:    59.5 cm × 44 cm (23.4 in × 17 in)
  • Museum:        National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Raphael

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“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain.”
– Leonardo da Vinci

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Photo Credit 1) Raphael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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