Madonna del Cardellino (1507), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)
by Rachael Herman
I have got it into my little head that I would like to talk to you, kind soul who is listening, about my favourite pieces of artwork. What I intend to do is pick a piece – from any period, in any medium and from any artist, subject to my very refined taste, naturally 😉 – and then (briefly) prattle on about its historical background; generally agreed interpretation and its relevance to my own work. I hope it proves to be of vague interest in any case…
To kick things off I have decided to take a peek at this sepic beauty by Raffaello Sanzio – Raphael to his mates – entitled, Madonna del Cardellino, which literally means Madonna of the Goldfinch. The subjects can clearly be seen as the Virgin, John the Baptist and Christ, placed in triangular formation with the central focus being on a small goldfinch: the object of interest between the two holy infants.
What is the symbolic relevance of this seemingly insignificant bird? you may chirp. Well, according to the RSPB, the humble goldfinch is one for rooting around in thorny hedgerows and thistles in order to find a nutritious seed or two. In my mind, there is an instant connection that can be formed between the habits of the goldfinch and the Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:3-9. The seed that fell amongst the thistle patch was an allegory for the word of God being heard but overshadowed by the temptations of the world, likewise the seed that the goldfinch is feeding on … Hmm, where am I going with this…? Right, yes the more obvious reading of the goldfinch is that its thorny habitat is a direct nod to the humiliating crown of thorns the unbeknown infant Jesus was to later endure, heads up courtesy of Johnny boy. (Actually, He must’ve been ‘beknown’ as according to Christian belief He is God and consequently privy to the master plan, therefore the kind heads up from John wouldn’t really have been necessary, but instead a kind, cousinly gesture…).
In addition to the goldfinch, the book that is delicately held in the Virgin’s left hand provokes a certain degree of inquiry in itself. In this case it is seen to signify wisdom, thus attributing the Virgin the title of Sedes Sapientiae; the Seat of Wisdom; the Mother of God. In other words, she’s in on the whole thing; deep down, she knows how things are sadly going to pan out for her son.
The painting itself has had to undergo a fair amount of restoration in order for it to look as it does today. No doubt this has been partly down to the wear and tear that comes with the territory of a 500 year-old existence, however, the main contributing factor would have to be the fact that the building it was housed in collapsed at the end of the 16th century due to an earthquake; breaking it into seventeen pieces. The building in question was the home of Lorenzo Nasi, a friend of Raphael to whom the painting was gifted as a wedding present. What an amazing present! Although, I don’t envy Nasi the daunting duty of having to tell Raphael that his masterpiece had just been creamed by an earthquake.
And now to the symbolism found in the colouring of the Virgin’s clothing. Here we see red, the colour of passion and love – a palpable reference to the love shared between family members, the most natural of them all being the unyielding bond between mother and child. Also, the red could connote the blood that was to be shed by Jesus, linking to the crown of thorns reference from the goldfinch. The blue denotes a sense of calm and stability – a reflection of the natural surroundings we find the Virgin in – as well as the obvious: royalty.
In terms of how this relates to my own practice, I would first like to highlight the technique employed by Raphael. Yes, he was very much influenced by the heavyweights, Michaelangelo and da Vinci – noticeably with his use of da Vinci’s sfumato method – however, there is something that one simply cannot deny Raphael and that is his representational view of beauty. This beauty is discovered in the way that he composes his figures – their playful yet exquisite interaction with one another; his understanding of the tenderness shared between mother and son – just look at how the barefoot Jesus stands gently on top of the bare foot of his mother, such a subtle form of closeness; and, most prominently, his use of graduated sepia tones that melt together to form the perfectly soft skin of his subjects. An altogether wonderful combination that I have repeatedly tried to recreate; whiling away hours blending and blending and blending again my oils in an attempt to reach skin-supremity. But alas, I have not reached it. Yet.