Raphael is considered one of the great masters of the High Renaissance for a variety of reasons. His style differed greatly from that of some of the other masters of the period such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, but he was equally masterful in his compositions and use of color and texture to attain a specific effect. This is evident in paintings such as the “Madonna of the Chair”, a 28” x 28” oil on canvas painting in which the image itself appears in the round.
The round shape of the image immediately draws attention to it because it is not in the traditional squared off space of the majority of images we see. Broken down to its most basic form, the space is filled with opposing U-shapes as they curve around each other. These include the line of the Madonna’s body as it curves around the U of the baby Jesus. Movement is suggested in the repeated Us of the Madonna’s blue knees and the imagined U of the young John as he extends out of the viewable space.
This space remains very shallow, emphasizing the sense of intimacy the nestled Us suggest while the curved nature of the outer frame reinforces the concept of the female and the natural. The modeled forms of the figures themselves, the plump roundness of the baby’s legs, the ovals of the faces and eyes and the subtle curvature of every line devote themselves to an appreciation of the feminine form. The balance seems slightly off-center to the upper left, as if the Madonna is actually reclining and adding a further sense of casual intimacy.
The eye is invited to travel freely about the image, but the vibrancy of the center area continues to draw the eye in a tight spiral contained by the stripes on Mary’s sleeve, the line of her arm, the direction of John’s eyes leading back to the heads of Mary and Jesus.
Raphael’s painting gains impact through its use of high value color, introducing vibrant yellows, reds and blues that appeal to the eye and convey a sense of richness and life. The colors are brightest toward the center of the painting, tending to draw the eye to an area near the shoulder of the baby Jesus. This gives that degree of separation between the viewer and the image that conveys the sense of royalty in that the viewer can never quite comfortably meet the gaze of the mother or child.
The large blocks of primary color appeal to our basic instincts while the texture and flow of the garments help to make us feel at home. There is a softness to the painting that is at once settling as well as thrilling on an elemental level introduced through the many diagonals.
Raphael masterfully employed the techniques of painting to capture the essence of motherhood within this painting. His use of curved and nestled forms provides a sense of comfort and security while the soft diagonals formed by the character’s arms and legs invoke a sense of excitement and energy. The slightly off-balance feel to the painting and gentle textures give the painting a sense of a casual moment of family-time while the distracting elements of color pull the viewer’s eye away from any attempt at making direct eye contact with the deities.
The primary colors used in the painting provides a sense of the elemental and pulls at our basic knowledge while the introduction of pattern in Mary’s shawl and headpiece again introduce a sense of life and energy. The shallow space at once invites intimacy and repels from becoming too close. The final result is an impression that one is observing a true likeness of the characters, perhaps as they are sitting behind a piece of glass.
They are available, but also just out of reach. They are real, but also somehow not on our level of reality. Despite all this, the softness of the mother surrounds us, envelops us as she envelops her child, and all the love and comfort of the world can be found in that embrace.