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Overview

After four years in Florence, Raphael moved to Rome in 1508, probably to execute more significant commissions under the papal reign of Julius II. The major work in America from Raphael's Roman period is The Alba Madonna. In this "Madonna of Humility" the Virgin is seated directly on the ground instead of on a heavenly throne or a sumptuous cushion. The artist grouped the figures in a broad low pyramid, aligning them within a circle in such a way that they not only conform to their space, but dominate it as well. The tondo, or round–format style, was popular in Florentine painting, and the influence of the Florentine masters Michelangelo and Leonardo is also apparent in the work.

The Alba Madonna shows the Roman style Raphael adapted, in the painting’s delicacy of color and mood, with figures draped in rose pink, pale blue, and green, set in an idealized, classical landscape. The Madonna is dressed in an antique costume of turban, sandals, and flowing robes. The serene, bucolic atmosphere of Raphael's tondo belies its emotional meaning. The Christ Child's gesture of accepting the cross from the Baptist is the focus of attention of all three figures, as if they have foreknowledge of Christ's sacrifice for mankind.

Provenance

Possibly Paolo Giovio, appointed to the Bishopric of Nocera by Clement VII in 1528; possibly from him to Chiesa di Monte Oliveto, Nocera de'Pagani; sold 1686 to Gasparo de Haro y Guzman, Conde-Duque de Olivares, Marqués del Carpio and Viceroy of Naples [d. 1687]; by inheritance to his daughter, Catalina Méndez de Haro y Guzmán, later Duquesa de Alba; by inheritance to the Duques de Alba; by inheritance to María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Alvarez de Toledo, Duquesa de Alba [d. 1802], Sanlúcar, near Seville;[1] sold by her heirs to Count Edmund de Bourke, Danish Ambassador to Spain; sold 1820 to William G. Coesvelt, London;[2] sold 1836 to (M. Labensky) for Czar Nicholas I of Russia [1796-1855], Saint Petersburg; Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg;[3] purchased April 1931 through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London; and M. Knoedler & Co., New York) by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 5 June 1931 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[4] gift 1937 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1979
Berenson and the Connoisseurship of Italian Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1979, no. 113, repro.
1983
Raphael and America, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1983, no. 92, repro.
2004
Masterpieces from the World's Museums in the Hermitage: Raphael's Madonna with Christ and St. John the Baptist (The Madonna Alba) from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, 2004, no cat.
2004
Raphael: From Urbino to Rome, National Gallery, London, 2004-2005, no. 93, as The Virgin and Child with Saint John (The Alba Madonna), repro.
Bibliography
1909
Wrangell, Baron Nicolas. Les Chefs-d'Oeuvre de la Galérie de Tableaux de l'Hermitage Impérial à St-Pétersbourg. London, 1909: repro. 11.
1929
Meissner, Carl. "Raphaels Madonna di Gaeta und Madonna Alba." Kunstauktion 3, no 30 (28 July 1929): 9, repro.
1929
"Um die Gaeta Madonna." Kunstauktion 3, no. 34 (29 August 1929):6.
1935
Tietze, Hans. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935: 79, repro. (English ed., Masterpieces of European Painting in America. New York, 1939: 79, repro.).
1937
Cortissoz, Royal. An Introduction to the Mellon Collection. Boston, 1937: repro. frontispiece
1937
Jewell, Edward Alden. "Mellon's Gift." Magazine of Art 30, no. 2 (February 1937): 82.
1937
"Trends: Art." American Architect and Architecture. 150 (March 1937): 4, repro.
1941
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 162, no. 24, pl. VIII.
1942
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 239, repro. 174.
1944
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Masterpieces of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1944: 48, color repro.
1946
Favorite Paintings from the National Gallery of Art Washington, D.C.. New York, 1946: 11-14, color repro.
1949
Paintings and Sculpture from the Mellon Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949 (reprinted 1953 and 1958): 29, repro.
1951
Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 58-59, repro.
1956
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 20, color repro.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 26
1960
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Later Italian Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Six in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 42, color repro. on cover.
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 25.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 134, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 107.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:130, color repro.
1966
Walton, William. "Parnassus on Potomac." Art News 65 (March 1966): 38, repro. 39.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 95, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 280, repro.
1978
Wasserman, Jack. "The Genesis of Raphael's Alba Madonna." Studies in the History of Art vol. 8 (1978):35-61, repro.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: I:386-389, II:pl. 277.
1979
Thomas, Denis. The Face of Christ. London, 1979: 78, repro.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 35, pl. 19.
1982
Alsop, Joseph. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared. Bollingen series 35, no. 27. New York, 1982: 452.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 178, no. 199, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 325, repro.
1986
Christensen, Carol. "Examination and Treatment of Paintings by Raphael at the National Gallery of Art." Studies in the History of Art 17 (1986):47-48, 52-54, repro.
1988
Wheeler, Marion, ed. His Face--Images of Christ in Art: Selections from the King James Version of the Bible. New York, 1988: 126, no. 16, color repro.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 20, 23, 91, 143, 170, color repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1992: 30, repro.
1996
Landi, Ann. "150 Years of Helping Shape a Nation's Taste." New York Times (December 1, 1996): 46.
1996
Wallis, Stephen. "Sketchbook: Knoedler Turns 150." Art & Antiques 19, no. 10 (November 1996): 18.
1997
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Christ's Birth Gave Birth to Astounding Images: Gallery Glitters with holy Masterpieces." Washington Times (December 21, 1997): D1, D5, repro.
1998
Buck, Stephanie and Peter Hohenstatt. Raffeallo Santi, known as Raphael, 1483-1520. Konemann, 1998: 76-77, repro. no. 97.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 80-81, no. 56, color repro.
2005
Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. A World History of Art. 7th ed. New York, 2005: 469, 470, color fig. 11.17.
2006
Rosenberg, Pierre. Only in America: One Hundred Paintings in American Museums Unmatched in European Collections. Milan, 2006: 17.
2009
Odom, Anne, and Wendy R. Salmond, eds. Treasures into Tractors: The Selling of Russia's Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938. Washington, 2009: 91, 106 nt 8, 131, 135 nt. 6, 202.
2013
Acres, Alfred. Renaissance Invention and the Haunted Infancy. London and Turnhout, 2013: 59, fig. 24.
2013
Harris, Neil. Capital Culture: J. Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience. Chicago and London, 2013: 44, 459-460.
2013
Hodge, Susie. Raphael: His Life and Works in 500 Images. Wigston, Leicestershire, 2013: 164, color fig.
2014
Mims, Bryan. "Asheville's Fortress of Art." Our State Down Home in North Carolina (1 October 2014): 40-42, 44, repro.
2016
Jaques, Susan. The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia. New York, 2016: 395, 398.
2016
Warner-Johnson, Tim, and Jeremy Howard, eds. Colnaghi: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. London, 2016: 4-5, color fig. 6.
Explore This Work

Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist are linked—by gaze, pose, and understanding—as they contemplate the cross Jesus takes in his hand. With calm gravity they apprehend the gesture’s significance: in this moment all see and accept Christ’s future sacrifice. But the limitlessness of the circular panel, its clear colors, and the Virgin’s radiant beauty hold out the promise of Grace.

Seamless integration of form and meaning is a hallmark of the High Renaissance, a brief moment when a timeless, classical style balanced the perceptual and the conceptual attractions of art. Raphael reached this point of perfect counterpoise after assimilating lessons from Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the art of ancient Rome—all of which we see reflected in The Alba Madonna.

The natural relation of the figures to each other and their landscape setting, and the way these relationships are integral to the “story” being told, were innovations Raphael drew from Leonardo. The three figures define a broad pyramid to convey strength and stability. But notice the extent to which their bodies and poses respond to the circular form: the bend of the Virgin’s leg and elbow, her soft face and domed turban, her arm encircling Saint John, his fur garment that sweeps around him to complete the curve. The circle of the tondo, an ideal and infinite shape, evokes the heavens, the idea of divine perfection, and the hope for salvation granted through Christ’s sacrifice. Even the plants contribute to this meaning.

Slideshow: Symbolism in Raphael's choice of plants

In Rome, where The Alba Madonna was painted, Raphael had been able to view work in progress on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes. We see the same robustness and large scale in Raphael’s figures. Compare the physical presence of the The Alba Madonna with pictures of the Virgin and Child Raphael painted in Florence only a few years earlier.

Slideshow: Madonna and child images in the National Gallery of Art collection

Here monumentality lends seriousness of purpose—gravitas further underscored by Raphael’s evocation of ancient art. The Madonna’s complex pose recalls classical sculpture, and her dress is that of a Roman matron. Even her sandal is based on those worn by a celebrated ancient sculpture in the papal collection.

Such a mélange of diverse influences might, in the hands of a lesser artist, produce a work that is formulaic or lifeless, but The Alba Madonna is warmed by compassion and incandescent beauty. Its meaning is made human with an easy grace. No wonder subsequent generations found Raphael’s art an ideal of harmony and perfection.

Self portrait (chalk heightened with white on paper), Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino) (1483-1520) / Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library

Raphael, Self portrait (chalk heightened with white on paper). Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library.

About the Artist

Raffaelo di Giovanni Santi was the younger contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo, and with them epitomizes the High Renaissance in Italy. For most of the history of Western art, the easy grace and harmonious balance of Raphael’s style has represented an ideal of perfection. A man noted also for wit and charm, he has often been called the “prince of painters.”

Raphael must have studied first with his father, painter at the court of Urbino, an environment rich in the arts and humanist learning. The elder Santi died when the boy was 11. Whether Raphael entered the workshop of Perugino at that time or, as seems more likely, many years later when he was already an acknowledged artist, he quickly mastered Perugino’s delicate, ornamental style, with its open landscapes and gentle figures. It was said that contemporaries had trouble distinguishing Perugino’s work from Raphael’s, but Raphael’s compositions were more sophisticated even when he was a young artist. 

Late in 1504, Raphael moved to Florence, drawn there by accounts of Leonardo’s work there. Leonardo’s softly shadowed forms, natural figure groupings, and simplified settings were all stunningly new—and Raphael responded quickly to them. In 1508 the pope called Raphael to Rome. Influenced by the idealized, classical art of the city's ancient past, Raphael’s work took on a new grandeur. He also responded to the more the energetic and physical style of Michelangelo, whose works he had already begun to study in Florence.

Raphael remained in Rome for the last 12 years of his life. In those years he was extremely active, preparing monumental frescoes for the papal chambers, designing tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, and painting scenes that captured mythological stories with delight and exuberance. His work became widely influential through the dissemination of prints. Raphael was also the city’s leading portraitist, creating penetrating psychological images that engaged viewer and sitter with a new intensity. When he died at age 37, the pope ordered that Raphael, who had been keeper of antiquities, be buried in the Pantheon.