The Sistine Madonna by Raphael: Finest Madonna in History

The Sistine Madonna by Raphael was the artist’s last Madonna or Mary’s depiction & the finest among all. Here’s everything to know about it.

Sistine Madonna

Over the Renaissance, we saw a tremendous growth of spiritual art professed with science, impeccable observation and skilled technicalities. Many artists took inspiration from the Book of Genesis and other theological literature to portray their subjects on canvas efficiently. If you look through the official records for learning the Renaissance artists through Vasari, he covered hundreds of artists, almost every crucial one from Giotto to Botticelli and other eminent painters. However, in the midst of scraping the history of numerous brilliant artists, the limelight often ends with the three exceptional artists of all time, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. I have previously written painting analysis covering Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, Leonardo’s The Last Supper, Virgin of the Rocks and Vitruvian Man. And today, I finally have the opportunity to introduce you to one of the luxuriant artworks of the High Renaissance, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. You might know that the Madonna was the favourite subject among the artists from early art movements, but the best version, which is the most accepted one to learn about the story behind Madonna, was by Raphael. So, let us start learning about the artwork!

General Information.

1. Artist Statement.

Raphael said to his best friend, Count Baldassare Castiglione,

“And I tell you that to paint one beautiful woman, I should need to see several beautiful women, and to have you with me to choose the best”.

I understand that I have often concluded this section with the artist’s words, but this time, I am adding a few extra words from the treasure box of Sir Joshua Reynolds, in admiration of Raphael. You will understand why as it answers one crucial question among several minds!

“The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, the correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united his observations on nature the energy of Michaelangelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. To the question, therefore, which ought to hold the first rank, Raffaelle or Michaelangelo, it must be answered that if it is to be given to him who possessed a greater combination of the higher qualities of the art than any other man, there is no doubt, but Raffaelle is the first. But if, according to Longinus, the sublime being the highest excellence that human composition can attain, abundantly compensates the absence of every other beauty, and atones for all other deficiencies, then Michaelangelo demands the preference.”

2. Subject Matter.

The subject matter of the composition is the figure of Madonna, holding a child against a background of blue-grey, becoming warmer towards the centre of the picture; Saint Sixtus, wearing yellow-orange brocade on the left; Saint Barbara with changeable silk of yellow, orange and blue colours; and two-winged cupids at the bottom of the painting.

Sistine Madonna by Raphael

The painting is the sublimest lyric of the art of Catholicity, according to Lubke, and it will continue to be an apex of all religious art. There are no back opinions that this painting is an entire emotion and essence of life.

3. Artist.

Raphael, one of the giant intellects born under a happy constellation, painted the Sistine Madonna. His art consists of beauty, pure and faultless appeal with rhythm, balance, colour, form and execution. Master painter and architect of the Italian High Renaissance, Raphael is especially admired for his clarity of form and ease of composition, showcasing the ideal human grandeur.

4. Date.

Sistine Madonna dates back to the year 1513. Raphael painted Madonnas on several canvases, showing gentleness and serenity, emphasising energetic movement and grandeur. It shows the richness of colour and boldness through the compositional invention, typically from the Raphael-Roman period.

5. Provenance.

Raphael painted the composition Sistine Madonna for the Black Friars Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza, Italy. It is known that he painted it in three months, entirely by hand, with no preliminary drawings existing.

6. Location.

The painting initially lay in the Royal Gallery of Dresden in a small room of the Sistine Chapel. However, today you can experience the mesmerising artwork in Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister).

7. Technique and Medium.

The Sistine Madonna is an oil on canvas painting with the technique of Chiaroscuro, Raphael learnt from Da Vinci.

Let us now take a closer look at the upcoming sections after you have gained a basic understanding of the painting.

ArtistRaffaello Sanzio da Urbino
Year Painted1513
MediumOil on canvas
PeriodItalian High Renaissance
GenreReligious History Painting
Dimensions281 x 426 cm
WorthPriceless, Not on sale
Where is it housed?Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister)

In-depth Description of the Frame.

About the Artist: Raphael.

Born at Urbino in Umbria in 1483, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (commonly known as Raphael) was the son of Giovanni Santi, a painter employed in Churches and Magia Ciarla. If we talk about the earlier life of Raphael, then his earlier inspiration was his father, as Giovanni was an artist of good local repute who studied under Melozo da Forli. However, if we look back on one of the paintings, Virgin and Child (in the National Gallery), some critics found that the quality of maternal feeling through Madonnas of Raphael was more precise than that of his father’s canvases. And since his father died when he was eleven, many suggested that it would be unsafe to attribute much of his art to paternal influence. In 1491, when he was eight, he lost his mother and then his father after a few years, charging him with certain dowries, under his brother Don Bartolomeo, a priest. Coming on his training days as a painter, his installation at Perugino as a pupil is uncertain, which we know from Vasari. Many also believe that it was not till 1500 that he became an inmate of the studio of Perugino. Furthermore, many critics also suggest that he was the pupil of Timoteo Viti. Though there is a missing date when exactly Raphael entered the studio of Perugino, we know that his first traces of work consisted of the drawings from his altarpieces in his sketchbook and that he learnt to grind colours, prepare grounds and make enlargements for him. Now that you briefly know about his initial days, I suppose we must begin to learn about his epic artwork.

Raphael Self Portrait

History and Background of the Depiction.

Sistine Madonna of Raphael in Dresden is the most discerning and supreme creation of all time and one of the most beautiful paintings of the world. It has a brief provenance behind which reveals the basis of his painting and explains why Raphael composed it. Following it, I understand that some people are allergic to history, so I will explain the incidents succinctly and concisely. The best words which tell the experience of this painting are,

“One looks, and his heart is in heaven.”

Often the critics place Sistine Madonna in the Roman period (1508-20). Raphael painted it for the altar of the Black Friars’ monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza, Italy. Now if you go into a bit of detail, then we know that after the sudden death of Duke Guidobaldo, whom he had several commissions for, he was obliged to leave the altarpiece of the Dei family unfinished, Madonna with the Baldachino. After a while, he came into the service of Pope Julius II as he entered Rome. And this was a complete turning point in his life. Vasari gives the information on this,

“Bramante of Urbino, who was in the service of Julius II., wrote to Raphael since he was distantly related to him and came from the same place, that he had obtained the consent of the Pope, who had had some new apartments constructed, to let Raphael display his powers in them. The proposal pleased Raphael so that he abandoned his work at Florence and moved to Rome.”

In 1508, when Raphael arrived, whose splendour would suffice enough to let Julius give him a commission, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which I previously informed you a bit about in the Sistine Chapel in the Creation Of Adam painting analysis. And this was the time when had many commissions, but after a few years after a successful series of Madonnas through different canvases, he finally painted Sistine Madonna. In addition, you must remember that the painting was painted for the Benedictine Monks of the San Sisto Monastery Piacenza and it was their direct request that both the aforementioned Saints and the Virgin Mary be in the composition. Now that you know the entire history of the artwork, let us move towards the meaning of the artwork.

Understanding the Sistine Madonna Meaning.

The composition Sistine Madonna has a simple subject where Virgin Mary holds the centre position with Christ as a child. Saint Sixtus kneels with his sturdy and venerable age on the left, and Saint Barbara kneels with eyes turned away from the glory too bright for mortals to see. And at the bottom of the canvas, two cherub faces showcasing innocence and loveliness stand.

Sistine Madonna painting tends to showcase all nations and recognise the matchless Madonna, the mother of our Lord and an ideal Divine child. It suggests that the spiritual and the physical are never far apart and that if we had better vision, angel faces might often be seen, and if we had better hearing, angel songs would often be heard. In the crispiest way, angels can break through physical limitations and enter human spheres, suggesting that the spiritual and physical are never far apart. It is the immortal message behind this canvas in a pictorial and impressive form by our talented Raphael.

Subject Matter and the Elements of the Artwork.

I will explain to you every character of the epic picture step by step to demolish any confusion. The composition is simple. In the centre of the canvas, the Virgin stands with Christ, showcasing the most divine image in palpable hues and forms to the living eye. She stands upon moving clouds, clad in a blue mantle with a red tunic and arms surrounding her child. If you gaze a bit towards the eyes of a child, it has some depth inside, expressing destiny as the Redeemer of the world. Towards the left, Saint Sixtus, bearded and bald with wrinkled skin, wearing a white and yellow stole, kneels, and at the right, Saint Barabara, the patroness of theological learning, kneels. Below the painting, you will see two cherubs with childish innocence and sublime inspiration. Now I wish to take every subject of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael in a bit of detail in context with their importance and feelings. So, let us start.

The Sistine Madonna painting

1. Sixtus.

Here, Sixtus is the embodiment of hope. Raphael clearly showed an old age man, showcasing his mature years and knowing well his limitations, gazing towards the newborn saviour of the world devoutly for aid. The artist cleverly represented him kneeling at the moment when the curtain just revealed the newborn baby with the Virgin. His attitude is best in words,

“Our hope is only in thee.”

It also displays a similar outlook of Peter when he says,

“Help, lord, or we perish.”

Sixtus in the Sistine Madonna by Raphael

2. Saint Barbara.

Saint Barbara is the symbol of pure love, one which is endless and has no doubt. Now you might think about how Raphael played with symbolism here. For Saint Barbara, the only immediate object of affection can be these cherubs who have wandered off from the celestial host and appear lost. Another thing to observe is that to find hope, you look above for help, while to love, you see the need and look for an opportunity. Hence, in the case of Saint Sixtus, he looks towards the newborn in a gesture forming the basis of,

“look who finally came, it is the saviour.”

Saint Barbara in the Sistine Madonna

And in Saint Barbara’s case, she looks downward, as a symbol of pure love and affection. Raphael showed s classic symbolism through gestures and colours. In the colour analysis part, I will reveal the rest.

3. Mary.

Everyone kept gazing at Mary’s beautiful face as Raphael created delicate suggestions of deep emotion in her. It further looks fascinating as there is a presence of blind and unintelligent faith, which fears nothing. There is a pledge of infinite love for her child, which her arms surround gently. Raphael showed a passive tenderness on her face through his exemplary emotions and brushstrokes.

Madonna or Mary in the Sistine Madonna painting
The Face Behind Sistine Madonna.

You might wonder which mesmerisingly beautiful woman modelled for Madonna in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. So I am giving you a beautiful story behind this emerging question. Margarita, the daughter of the baker Francesco Luti of Siena, is the model for his many paintings, Donna Velata, Sistine Madonna and St. Cecilia. Now, the story goes that Raphael was attached to her till the time of his death. Also, she was a widow whom Raphael, on insistence with the Pope, let her bring out from the room and left her enough provision to live the rest of her life in decency. To know his complete love story, you have to check upon my next articles this month!

Woman with a Veil by Raphael
St Cecilia Raphael

Formal Analysis of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael.

1. Line.

There are brawny boundaries and outlines of the subject. From the bold lines initiating the drawings to the fine lines of the hair and beard, Raphael showcased pleasantness in the composition. There is a presence of contour lines in the painting with several rhythmic lines in the draperies and part of the dresses.

2. Light and Value.

The entire painting has the chiaroscuro effect with slightly better brightness and contrast. There is the negligible presence of shadows in the composition, and all of the elements have their own space, which suggests an absence of overlapping or an indication of dominance.

3. Colour.

In the Sistine Madonna, there is a blue-grey background, becoming warmer towards the centre of the picture, where the Virgin stands. Now if you look closely at Mary, then you will find that the upper portion of the robe is pink, deepening to red in shades over a vest of violet-grey, and her lower body includes a blue over a skirt of red. Looking at the Saint Sixtus on the left, he wears a yellow and orange brocade, lined with red on an ivory white garment. Here, through a red lining on his robe, running with an ordered pattern in yellow and orange, Raphael showcased thoughtful wisdom and benevolence, as symbolism. And on the right, Saint Barbara wears yellow sleeves with orange changeable silk and blue sleeves between the elbow and the shoulder. Looking from the perspective of symbolism, Saint Barbara robes have yellow and orange colours that showcase wisdom and benevolence with the mantle of green as a symbol of fruitfulness. Now for ideal love, there does not remain weakness, and it is just generous, which her blue arm displays as a badge of truth and justice. On her back, the clouds are warm grey, and the curtains flowing in the back are dull green. Raphael created dominance of cool colours with contrasts softer than usual.

Opinions and Conclusions.

The Sistine Madonna is above all the words of praise as it displays an extravagance of expression of soberness, divinity and simplicity. The entire canvas rolls around the beauty of Madonna with developed womanhood, showcasing harmony of her body, soul and spirit. Confidently, the canvas shows a terrific message between spirituality and physical form in a prepossessed way. To conclude the article, I can say that Raphael has clearly paid a tribute to Mary through his gentle touch of her gesture, expression, innocence and love towards her child.


1. Raphael by Knackfuss, H. (Hermann), 1848-1915; Dodgson, Campbell, 1867-1948.

2. Raphael by Strachey, Henry.

3. The Sistine Madonna: a Christmas Meditation by Bradford, Amory H. (Amory Howe), 1846-1911.

4. Raphael by Konody, Paul G, 1972-1933.

5. The Story of the Masterpieces by Charles M.Stuart.

Frequently Asked Questions.

What is the story behind the Sistine Madonna?

After Raphael entered Rome, he became popular among the artist community due to his magnificent skills. And during his stay, he made numerous Madonnas, in which Sistine Madonna became tremendously famous. It was specially painted for the Benedictine Monks of the San Sisto Monastery Piacenza.

Why is the Sistine Madonna so famous?

The Sistine Madonna is famous because of its exceptional beauty and the use of symbolism by Raphael. The artwork holds a special place as it shows a close connection between the spiritual and the physical worlds and gives a message of angels entering the human sphere.

Where is the Sistine Madonna today?

For the last 250 years, the Sistine Madonna lies at its original place. One can find the painting in a small room of the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister), which is as divine as a church.

How does the Sistine Madonna represent the Renaissance?

The chiaroscuro technique of Leonardo da Vinci, the divinity and spirituality of subjects, brilliant colours, and faultless appeal of characters with the right rhythm and form are some of the reasons that the Sistine Madonna represents the era of Renaissance.

What techniques did Raphael use in the Sistine Madonna?

Raphael made this painting in oil on canvas medium with the technique of Chiaroscuro. As the technique includes, the artwork shows clear tonal contrasts to suggest the volume of subjects and their modelling.

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