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The Sistine Madonna Turns 500 — By A.J. Goldmann

July 30, 2012

The Sistine Madonna by Raphael 1513-1514

A. J. Goldmann writes for the Wall Street Journal and  is based in Berlin.  He writes about European arts and culture.

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Friedrich Nietzsche called her “the vision of the future wife.” Johann Wolfgang Goethe revered her as the “queen of all mankind.” Thomas Mann praised her as “my greatest experience in the art of painting.” Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, the last painting that the master completed by his own hand, turns 500 this year. A new exhibit in this city, where the painting has spent half of its life, shows that she wears her age well. As curated by Andreas Henning, “The Sistine Madonna: Raphael’s Iconic Painting Turns 500″ also sheds new light on the work’s fraught history and examines how it achieved the renown it enjoys today: a fame largely due to the pensive cherubs at the painting’s base.

The exhibit at the Old Master Picture Gallery in Dresden, Germany is an in-depth look at the painting’s composition, acquisition and reception—a story told through paintings, sketches, letters and objects.

“The main idea was not to make a Raphael exhibition, but to tell a story. Where does the painting come from? How did it get here? How was it received when it came to Dresden? How has the painting been celebrated in copies in the 19th century? How has it been celebrated in the gallery?” explained Bernhard Maaz, the museum’s director, in an interview.

The show starts with Pope Julius hiring Raphael to create an altarpiece for the monastery church of San Sisto in Piacenza, 40 miles from Milan. The commission celebrates Piacenza’s joining the Papal States after French troops were driven out of Northern Italy in 1512. There are no sketches or documents relating to the Sistine Madonna’s composition, but the museum fills this gap by exhibiting several other Raphaels, including the famous portrait (on loan from the Uffizi) of a melancholy Julius II slumped in his red throne and a portrait of the noblewomen Donna Velata, whose noble features may have inspired Raphael’s depiction of Mary in the Sistine Madonna.

The painting remained in relative obscurity until August III, the Elector of Saxony, mounted a campaign to buy the work and bring it to Dresden in 1754. “Make Room for the Great Raphael!” (1859), Adolph von Menzel’s painting of the arrival of the Sistine Madonna at the Dresden Palace, shows the Saxon monarch pushing his throne aside to welcome the painting, an apocryphal story that gained popularity in the Romantic Era. Throughout Europe in the 19th century, the Raphael painting’s reputation grew through written accounts, hand-drawn copies and, eventually, mass reproductions. The exhibit includes other canvases depicting the Madonna, as well as prints and photographs that attest to the role mechanical reproduction played in the popularization of the painting.

“Raphael’s Dream,” an 1821 canvas by Franz and Johannes Riepenhausen, shows Raphael receiving a divine vision to help him finish the painting. In Kurt Schwitters’s mischievous Dadaist collage of 1921, a wheel covers the cherubs and Mary becomes a Louise Brooks lookalike with short hair and modern hat.

During World War II, the Nazis moved the Sistine Madonna out of Dresden for safe-keeping. Discovered in a former railway tunnel by the Soviet “trophy brigades” in 1945, it was whisked away to the U.S.S.R., along with millions of cultural treasures taken as war reparations from German and Eastern European museums and castles. The Sistine Madonna remained in Moscow for a decade, along with thousands of other items from the Dresden collection. Mr. Maaz said looted art was a taboo subject, never discussed officially in Communist East Germany. But the exhibit displays a page from the gallery’s 1954 guestbook with irate entries by visitors demanding to see the Madonna again.

The Soviets returned the painting, along with hundreds of other artworks, to East Germany in 1956. There is a newspaper article from Pravda about the 1955 exhibit at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum, the first and only time the painting was exhibited publicly in the Soviet Union. “When you come to Moscow, as I did two years ago, you can meet old people who still remember seeing the exhibit. It is very touching if you meet a very old lady who remembers what a miracle it was to see this painting in Moscow in 1955,” Mr. Maaz said.

To explain the painting’s long absence, the Soviets claimed the Madonna needed major restoration work before it could return to Dresden. This official explanation is illustrated by the 1985 painting “Madonna Rescued” by Mikhail Kornetsky. Done in Socialist-Realist style, it depicts Soviet soldiers and restorers scrutinizing the Madonna. “East Germans did not speak about this, but now we know that ‘conservation purposes’ was just a pretense,” Mr. Maaz said.

For the anniversary show, the Sistine Madonna has been outfitted with an impressive new frame. Hand-carved and gilded, it is modeled after similar Italian altarpiece frames of the early 16th century, since the original has been lost. It is set against a wall of gray, a color suggesting its intended setting within a church. It is, however, hung much lower than it would have been in Piacenza.

It is ironic that the Sistine Madonna’s most famous aspect is not its emotionally complex portrait of Mary and Jesus, but rather the cherubs propping themselves up on an altar at the base of the composition. The exhibit lingers on these winged messengers and traces their rise to art superstar status. For Mr. Maaz, their rise to fame is linked with the German Romantic era’s obsession with children: “Children were seen as the hope of mankind, they were considered to be very pure and clear and innocent in their souls. And these children were seen as something very special and something very rare in Raphael’s art.”

While one might think that taking the cherubs out of the painting’s context is a modern phenomenon, it has been going on since 1800. The exhibit’s most giddy and irreverent section deals with the solo adventures of the cherubs in the 19th and 20th centuries. Their images adorn embroidery, household tchotchkes of every stripe, holiday greeting cards, postcards for numerous Italian cities, toilet paper, an ad for lard, an emergency supply kit for hangovers, rolling tobacco, deodorant and even the box of a German baking mix called “Erotik Brot.”

Aside from the fun in displaying such paraphernalia, Mr. Maaz articulated a deeper hope for the exhibit. “We wanted to reintegrate these two children into the composition,” he said of the cherubs. “They look to the Christ Child and they ask about his future. They are asking, ‘What shall happen?’ And they are connecting Mary and the Child to us on earth.”

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