The High Renaissance was a period that extreme talent converged in various cities in Italy, including Florence and Rome. Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520) was one of these talented Renaissance artists who became a superstar of his time.
He produced multiple Madonna paintings during the first decade of the 16th century and one of the smallest in this collection is considered to be one of the most famous paintings in his oeuvre as well.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most interesting facts about Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael, a delicate little artwork that defines the enormous talent of this renowned Italian artist.
1. It was painted during the Florentine period of Raphael
The whereabouts of Raphael after he completed his apprenticeship by his master Pietro Perugino remains unknown. That’s because he most probably lived the life of a nomadic artist who traveled around North Italy to earn commissions.
Despite this lack of evidence that he was a resident in Florence, art historians still describe a period between approximately 1504 and 1508 as his “Florentine Period.” This was after his early period in which he learned the ropes and exceeded the talent of his master.
He spent a lot of time in Florence as he was influenced by the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian polymath who returned to Florence in the early 16th century after working for an extended period at the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza in Milan.
Raphael is believed to have completed this painting between 1506 and 1507.
2. The painting depicts a common scene with the Virgin Mary
The Madonna of the Pinks is one of the many paintings produced by Raphael depicting the Virgin Mary with her Son Jesus Christ. In this work, the Madonna appears as a very young woman and has a playful smile on her face.
She is playing with her baby Jesus and handing him a flower referred to as “dianthus.” The scientific name of this flower that is commonly known as “Pink” literally translates from Greek to “Flower of God,” a reference to the fact that Jesus is the son of God according to the Bible.
Pinks are important flowers in Christianity as they are considered a prelude to the final period of Christ’s life. They first appear when the Virgin Mary is weeping at the crucifixion of her son.
3. The Italian name is the same as one of da Vinci’s paintings
The reference of these flowers in the most important phase of Christianity, the passion of Christ, also means that they have been very popular in Christian art. Raphael wasn’t the first to include them in one of his works.
The Italian name of this painting is “La Madonna dei garofani” which translates to “Madonna of the Carnation.” Carnation is another name often given to this type of flower and “Madonna of the Carnation” (1478-1480) is the name of a painting by Leonardo da Vinci as well.
Although the composition of both paintings isn’t the same, it’s believed that da Vinci was a major influence for Raphael during this period. Especially the “Benois Madonna” (1478-1480) bears a striking resemblance to Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael.
4. Raphael included a couple of symbols related to Christianity
The setting of the painting, a dark and gloomy room with only one source of light, is inspired by Early Netherlandish paintings. Especially the works by famous Flemish artist and master of the Northern Renaissance Jan van Eyck (1390-1441).
Apart from including the flowers from which the painting got its name, he also included a landscape that can be seen through the single window of the room.
We can see a column that is typical of classical architecture and a dilapidated building in the distance. This is believed to be a reference to the downfall of the Pagan world when Jesus Christ was born.
This event would take another 3 centuries as Constantine the Great was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, an act that helped to spread Christianity all across the Roman Empire in the 4th century.
5. It’s possible that it was commissioned for a particular reason
Little is known about the early history of the painting, except for an entry in a manuscript of the family who owned it in the 19th century. This states that the painting was created for a woman named Maddalena degli Oddi.
The reason why it was commissioned for this woman, who came from a rich family in Perugia, was that she entered the monastery to live the life of a nun. In that sense, it was a work that was painted to help her pray and worship.
This would mean that it wasn’t the first commission for Raphael by the Oddi family. he also painted the “Oddi Altarpiece” or “Coronation of the Virgin” for this family’s chapel of the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, Italy, between 1502 and 1504.
6. It wasn’t identified as a true Raphael painting until the early 1990s
The painting was bought by the Duke of Northumberland in the year 1853 and hung at his residence, the Castle of Alnwick, ever since. Although it was considered to be a lovely painting in the Duke’s collection, they were clueless about its real value.
This all changed in 1991 when Renaissance scholar Nicholas Penny identified the work as an authentic painting by Raphael. Before this, it was considered to be merely a nice copy of the original which was believed to be lost.
Penny visited Alnwick Castle and accidentally stumbled upon the painting. Infrared scanning of the work eventually revealed the true identity of the artist who created it.
7. How big is Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael?
Perhaps one of the main reasons that the Dukes of Northumberland didn’t pay closer attention to the painting is because of its small size. The Madonna of the Pinks is no larger than a sheet of paper.
The painting has dimensions of 27.9 × 22.4 centimeters (11.0 × 8.8 inches), a size that made it perfectly suited to carry along during prayer, the reason it’s believed to have been commissioned for.
The artist also didn’t use a lot of painting materials to produce this oil on yew painting. His palette consisted of natural ultramarine and azurite for the Virgin’s drapery and lead-tin yellow, malachite, and verdigris for the other elements.
8. Where is the painting located today?
Did we say that the Duke of Northumberland struck gold with the positive attribution to Raphael in 1991?
That’s because it instantly skyrocketed the value of this painting. After all, Raphael is considered to be one of the 3 great masters of the High Renaissance together with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael ended up being sold for £34.88 million and entered the collection of the National Gallery in London in 2004. This amount was collected with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the National Art Collections Fund.
It’s fair to conclude that this is one of the most fascinating works of art in the museum!