A meeting of Raphael′s Madonnas in Berlin | Arts | DW | 13.12.2019
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A meeting of Raphael's Madonnas in Berlin

A Berlin museum is the first of many museums worldwide to open an exhibition dedicated to Raphael, the Italian master painter of the High Renaissance period who died 500 years ago.

Washington, London, Paris, Rome: Museums across the globe are rolling out the red carpet in 2020 to honor Raphael, the Italian painter, draftsman, architect, archaeologist and poet Raphael, who died 500 years ago on April 6, 1520.  

Berlin's Gemäldegalerie kicks off the global jubilee with a show presenting the artist's early Madonnas.

The exhibition is a one-room show, decidedly small but exquisite.

Guest curator Alexandra Enzensberger presents five paintings of the Virgin Mary from the museum's collection, plus The Madonna of the Pinks, on loan from Britain's National Gallery — the first time that painting has left the UK since it was acquired by the London museum.

"With the Madonnas, we are showing Raphael's early work," Enzensberger says, adding that one might think the Prussian kings were obsessed with the young Raphael as they bought the five paintings in the Berlin collection between 1821 and 1854, at a time when Raphael was in high demand.

The Prussians actually considered buying the Madonna of the Pinks, too, but the painting was considered too expensive.

The Madonna Terranuova was the most expensive acquisition of that time, and it's the smallest of the paintings on show for the anniversary exhibition. Raphael's depictions burst with life, and the glances exchanged by the mother and child express great intimacy. As so often, the painter embedded his figures in a harmonious and balanced composition.

painting by Raphael | Madonna Terranuova (SMB/Gemäldegalerie/Jörg P. Anders)

Oil on wood: 'Madonna Terranuova' went to Berlin in 1854

Humble beginnings

Perugino (1445-1523), the most important master of the Umbrian School, taught Raphael how to draw and paint. Later, Raphael went to Florence and then Rome, where he became court painter to the popes. The meeting of the Madonnas at the Berlin Gemäldegalerie museum allows a "completely focused and extremely concentrated" view of Raphael the artist, says Michael Eissenhauer, director-general of the Berlin State Museums.

About 500 years after his death, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino is still considered to be one of the greatest painters in European art history. Along with Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) he forms the triumvirate of the Central Italian High Renaissance.

Born in Urbino in 1483 as the son of a court painter, Raphael lost both his parents at a young age and was raised by an uncle. At the age of 17 at the latest, his talent could no longer be overlooked: From 1500 until his appointment to Rome he worked mainly for wealthy patrician families and created religious devotional pictures, altars and portraits.

Two cherubs with wings peer upwards, detail of a painting by Raphael (picture-alliance/dpa)

Also by Raphael, these little cherubs are found on postcards and t-shirts all over the world

Until 1504 he drew and painted in the Umbrian style, then he moved to Florence to study Leonardo da Vinciand Michelangelo. During the four years he spent in Florence and Perugia he gained a reputation as a portraitist, painter of altarpieces and especially of Madonnas, which he painted in countless variations on wood, canvas or plaster throughout his life. In Florence he found his own Madonna painting style.

Raphael in Rome

In late 1508 Pope Julius II summoned Raphael to Rome to take part in the painting of the papal rooms. Inspired by Raphael's depiction of the Disputa in the Stanza della Segnatura, Julius II entrusted him with the responsibility of furnishing entire rooms. After the death of the pontiff in 1513, the Medici pope Leo X allowed the campaign to continue. For 12 years Raphael shaped the production of art at the papal court in Rome.

After Michelangelo's return to Florence in 1516, Raphael was the undisputed leader among the painters, architects and preservationists of the Eternal City, creating masterpieces that established his reputation to this day. He portrayed friends and rich patrons, created altarpieces and designed the famous tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.

painting by Raphael | Madonna Diotalevi (SMB/Gemäldegalerie/Jörg P. Anders)

'Diotallevi Madonna' is one of the artist's early works

Dead at age 37

Raphael died on April 6, 1520 at the age of 37. His art has remained exemplary for generations of artists.

Raphael's Madonnas are on display from December 13, 2019 to April 26, 2020, opening a series of three exhibitions dedicated to the artist in the German capital. A cycle on Raphael's life in January shows etchings by Johannes Riepenhausen (1787-1860), and in February the Kupferstichkabinett presents its Raphael masterpieces. The National Gallery in London has a Raphael exhibition next fall. Raphael's art is still important today, says Enzensberger.

"Raphael is almost too harmonious, almost too beautiful," the art historian told DW. "But perhaps there will come a time when we long for just that."

The exhibition "Raphael in Berlin – The Madonnas of the Gemäldegalerie" runs from December 13, 2019 to April 26, 2020 at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

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