Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross

190. The Sistine Madonna: The Worry and the Fear

25 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah[a] should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” [Luke 24:25-26, NRSV]

 The Sistine Madonna, by Raphael 1513-1514.

The Sistine Madonna, originally destined for the altarpiece of the church of San Sisto in Piacenza in 1513-1514, is one of Raphael’s most famous works. Bought over in 1754 by King Augustus III of Saxony for his collection in Dresden, this painting sparked debate and influenced artistic and religious thoughts of the time in Germany and other European countries.

Flanked by St Sixtus and St Barbara, the Madonna emerges from behind the curtains holding the Infant Jesus as she floats on a carpet of clouds. Gazing from the foot of the painting are two angels (cherubs) whom Rapahel depicted in such incredibly realistic wistful contemplation.

This masterpiece points us to some lessons on Christmas.

From the start, art critics were captivated by the apparent sadness and even somewhat petrified expression on the faces of the Madonna and Child. This seems to tie in at once to St Sixtus who is featured here fixing his gaze on the Madonna and Child on the one hand and pointing out of the painting, seemingly at us, the viewers, with a sense of urgency. The papal tiara is not worn on the head of St Sixtus, but is taken down and placed on top of the balustrade as a mark of respect for the Virgin and the Infant Jesus. In the midst of all this, St Barbara throws us off with her enigmatic serene expression. However, she draws attention not so much to her serene expression, but to her gaze, which is down towards the cherubs at her feet. The cherubs, painted with breathtaking reality, are full of yearning or desire tinged with melancholy. They appear musingly sad, pensive and wistful, yearning for something and knowing, thus appearing to regret, that they cannot see or get the object of their yearning.

What is it all about, really? What is Raphael trying to convey here? And what has it got to do with Christmas anyway which is right round the corner for us this time of the year?

Originally intended as the altarpiece at the church of San Sisto, Rapahel’s masterpiece would have been set at a position that faced a choir screen that had a crucifix attached to it. Raphael, having done his ground survey in due diligence, went on to paint this Sistine Madonna knowing that it would be facing a crucifix. That’s what it is about.

  • St Sixtus, who is Pope Sixtux II, was martyred on 6 August 258 along with seven deacons, including Lawrence of Rome during the persecution of the Catholic Church by Emperor Valerian. With wonderfully painted hands, he is pointing at the crucifix, not at us, the viewers. A martyr is leading our attention to the Cross of Christ.
  • So now we see the evident worried expression of the Madonna, as well as the evident fear on the face of the infant Jesus, in reference to the coming suffering of the Messiah. They render to us an expression of horror as their reaction to the sight of torture and death.
  • St Barbara, too, is a martyr of the third century, known in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Great Martyr Barbara. Behind her, brilliantly tucked away in the background behind a curtain, is a tower which is a representation of her imprisonment (in a tower) as she was locked away for her belief in Christianity in opposition to her pagan father. Now we get it; St Barbara accepted her martyrdom serenely, pointing us to the cherubim who yearn for things to be different from the suffering death awaiting the Messiah.
  • The cherubs, naughty though their naked innocence suggests, are portrayed here by the master artist as infused with the wisdom of the heavens, bearing the insight of the coming tragic end of this Emmanuel born on Christmas Day, ruefully regretting the outcome, yearning that it wasn’t so excruciating and heartbreaking.
  • Christmas – the Virgin Mary, the angels and the saints have all understood – points all too soon to the cross.

In this regard, we should mention that Raphael’s winged cherubs have over time grown into a celebrity status all of their own, making quite a solo career in the commercial world of unbroken supply of merchandise. Appearing in diverse advertisements, they have adorned stamps, embroidery, wrapping paper, tin cans, T-shirts and postcards. They have been painted on porcelain and used as decorative motifs for jewellery. They decorate bed sheets and pyjamas in their function as guardian angels. Heavily marketed, these cherubim have been copied alone, without the rest of the Sistine Madonna, and thus truncated from the original vision of the master artist. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people may recognize these little guys with fondness and copy them with relish, but are quite unaware of the larger painting from which they were plucked.

In a somewhat oddly similar fashion, Christians may also celebrate Christmas with such secular and total abandon, quite forgetful of its religious provenance, the impoverished conditions in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, and the suffering the righteous Son of God would inevitably face.

It is not that we must not celebrate Christmas; it’s just that we ought to be ever conscious that the One who came on Christmas Day would grow up determined to live in utter freedom and authenticity which would inevitably cause a clash of values with the power that be. In preservation of their privileges, those in the corridors of power would be equally determined to take him out. It is not that we should not eat and drink, or buy people presents in celebration of Christmas; it is just that in eating, drinking, buying presents and getting presents, we ought not lose sight of whose birthday we are celebrating – the One who came in poverty and humility to be part of our humanity. Before he died, he was determined in utter freedom, till death if necessary, to show us how to live, as children of God. He did not come to die; he came to live, and to show us how to live “abundantly” (John 10:10), a beautiful and noble life in promotion of God’s kingdom values on earth. Suffering and sacrifice always accompany authentic Christian living — a journey from pain to hope and joy of God’s kingdom exemplified by Jesus of Nazareth.

Hopefully, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna stands as a timely reminder of that.

Merry Christmas to you all!

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, December 2017. All rights reserved.

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