FROM THE COLLECTION : Washington's Prize Possessions

Sunday, July 15, 2007

This round painting by Raphael at the National Gallery of Art is called the "Alba Madonna" because it was long owned by the Spanish dukes of Alba. It's also been known as "the million-dollar picture." In 1931, when Andrew Mellon bought it from Joseph Stalin's government, it was the most expensive painting ever sold.

Raphael was more admired then than now. He was known as the "supreme harmonizer." You can see why. The arrangement of its figures -- Mary, Jesus and Saint John the Baptist -- is strongly pyramidal. They are seen within a circle, and the entire composition is focused on the cross. All of these geometries seamlessly cooperate.

The lady's bedstraw growing at the right represents the hay of the nativity. The violets in the foreground are emblems of humility. The anemones on John's lap symbolize the Resurrection. They show Raphael's erudition. When called to Rome in 1508, he immersed himself in that city's ancient past. Mary's sandals show this. They are classically antique.

-- Paul Richard

The communist couriers who brought the "Alba Madonna" to Washington traveled in steerage. After being paid, they sailed home first-class. Raphael (1483-1520) painted the "Alba Madonna" in Rome, around 1510. The picture hangs in the National Gallery's West Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, in Gallery 20. The museum is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free.

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