(b. 1483, Urbino, d. 1520, Roma)

Madonna and Child (The Ansidei Altarpiece)

c. 1505
Oil on wood, 209,6 x 148,6 cm
National Gallery, London

Raphael abandoned every trace of Peruginesque influence in Florence and returned to Umbria in the same year with new pictorial motifs which he was to express in two notable works, the Colonna Altarpiece and, a bit later, the Ansidei Madonna, also known as the Enthroned Madonna with Saints John the Baptist and Nicholas of Bari.

The Ansidei altarpiece, of a type known as sacra conversazione (Italian for `holy conversation'), in which the enthroned Virgin and Child and their attendant saints seem to commune together, was commissioned by Bernardino Ansidei for his family chapel in a Perugian church. The chapel was dedicated to Saint Nicholas of Bari, and the bishop saint is shown with his attribute of three golden balls (the origin of pawnbrokers' signs) representing the bags of gold he donated as dowries to three poor girls. John the Baptist, who foretold the coming of Christ and baptised him, wears the camel tunic of his desert sojourn and a crimson prophet's cloak. Instead of his usual reed cross, he holds a wonderfully transparent cross of crystal. Pointing to the Child on the Virgin's lap, he looks up gravely to the Latin inscription above her, `Hail, Mother of Christ'. Beads of scarlet coral, a common charm against evil, the colour of Christ's blood, hang from the canopy. The vaulted niche open onto the luminous Umbrian countryside was designed to seem continuous with the actual architecture of the chapel.

The luminous landscape background and the high baldachin remotely recall the art of Piero della Francesca, but the figure types, still vaguely Peruginesque in their contours, are psychologically more complex and structurally more volumetric. The compositional scheme is reduced to a large arch whose central axis is represented by the baldachin. The result is a sense of monumentality and harmonic proportion which were to become constant in Raphael's art.

One of the three predella panels for this altarpiece survives and is also in the National Gallery, Saint John the Baptist Preaching, which must have been placed to the left, beneath the figure of the saint. Below the Virgin and Child there was once a scene of the Marriage of the Virgin, and Saint Nicholas saving the Lives of Seafarers originally supported Nicholas's image on the right.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.