Raphael's Christ Child

Born in 1483, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, better known simply as Raphael, is one of the most prominent painters of the Italian Renaissance.  As a child, he worked alongside his artist father and was commissioned by wealthy patrons to create altarpieces.  As an adult, Raphael added portraiture, architecture, engravings, frescoes, and tapestry design to his large body of work[1].  Perhaps his best-known works are paintings of the Madonna and Child.  These works are so beloved because of the grace, beauty, and tenderness Raphael captures in them.  Religious themes were common in the art of this period, keeping in line with the societal importance of religion.  This explains the abundance of imagery of the Christ Child, making him the most famous infant in art history.  Raphael’s Madonna and Child series are some of the best-known depictions of Christ as a child. 

Raphael's portrayal of the divine mother-child relationship is both idealized and realistic.  From these paintings, we see elements of Christ’s divinity, but also understand his humanity.  This is part of the reason these paintings became so enormously famous.  Raphael allows viewers to see Christ and Mary as relatable figures.  They appear often in everyday settings such as a field or meadow, rather than enthroned in Heaven.  Viewers can connect with these images more because of the emphasis on humanity.  The figures still retain some of their idealization, in particular, their serene demeanor, graceful posture, and their romanticized mother-son relationship.



Raphael captures a tender moment between Mary, Jesus, and the infant St. John the Baptist. St. John holds out a goldfinch, a symbol of Christ’s Passion[2], for Christ to look at.  Christ’s curving pose is unnaturally graceful and refined for a child and his face does not indicate the childish excitement one might expect from a young boy playing with an animal.  The knowing look Christ is giving to the bird indicates that he is aware of his eventual fate.  Raphael is taking steps towards portraying Christ with childlike characteristics, yet still indicating his divinity.



This painting of the Madonna and Child with St. John is another famous example of Raphael’s work.  The infant Christ lounges on Mary’s lap, and looks down towards St. John kneeling below.  All three figures have very faint halos above their heads.  The subtle halos reinforce the idea that Christ, Mary, and St. John are holy figures.  However, the halos are so faint that their divinity does not overwhelm the image: We are reminded that they are still human.  The emphasis on their humanity and the tenderness between the figures help the viewer connect with the parent-child relationship portrayed in the image.  The children exchange a meaningful stare as Christ reaches out and accepts the reed cross, indicating an acceptance of his future sacrifice.



Raphael emphasizes the bond between Mother and Child with the way he has positioned Christ in Mary’s lap.  Mary gently cradles the infant in one arm, holding up a prayer book she is reading in her other hand.  Christ looks over his shoulder at the viewer as he places a hand on the collar of Mary’s dress.  The scene captures a moment in time when Mary, while diligently reading from her prayer book, has been interrupted by her hungry child.  She gazes down tenderly at the child, contemplating her motherly duties to him.  Christ is portrayed in a humanistic manner, as this is a familiar image of motherhood in any era.  In contrast, the Alba Madonna portrays the infant Christ with adult characteristics.  Madonna Colonna reinforces Christ's infancy rather than his divinity. 



In this earlier work of Raphael’s, he presents the Madonna and Child sitting in front of a brick wall with a city in the background on a hill.  Mary’s bright red and blue clothing contrasts her and her son’s pale flesh.  The young Christ places his arms around his mother’s neck and turns his gaze to the viewer.  Mary’s graceful facial features are composed in a gaze that looks past the viewer.  There is a gentle quality in the way Christ places his small bare foot on Mary’s hand.  His graceful pose gives the impression of weightlessness, something that signifies his divine qualities.  Again, Mary and the Child are remarkably serene, indicating their holiness.

[1]  Nicholas Penny, "Raphael," Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, accessed November 24, 2017, http://www.oxfordartonline.com.ecsu.idm.oclc.org/subscriber/article/grove/art/T070770.

[2] “Signs and Symbols,” Fitz Museum, http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/pharos/collection_pages/middle_pages/563/TXT_BR_SS-563.html.

Raphael's Christ Child