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A Hint of Restraint, As Jesus's Destiny Tugs

Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon.
Raphael's universally admired painting was given to the National Gallery by Andrew Mellon. (National Gallery Of Art)
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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Leo Steinberg, 88, is one of the most influential figures in art history. In the 1950s and '60s, he was already doing pioneering work on Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His 1983 book called "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion" -- a scholarly look at depictions of Jesus's penis, and how they've been ignored -- was hugely controversial. "Leonardo's Incessant Last Supper," a book Steinberg published in 2001, may be the most intense study ever of a single work of art.

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This painting is about what I call the "Not yet" motif. The Virgin will suffer her Seven Sorrows, but before that she has her Seven Joys, beginning with the birth of the Christ child. And when the child prematurely seizes upon his Passion -- here symbolized by the cross -- the Virgin's maternal impulse is to restrain him, as if to say, "Not yet. Let me have my joys first. I know the sorrows are to come."

This is the action: The little Saint John is presenting the cross to the Christ child, as if to remind him of what the purpose of his life is. The child does not need to be reminded: He seizes the cross, almost triumphantly. It's done as if in play, and that's the genius of Raphael: to disguise the theology under the aspect of infant play. And the Virgin interrupts her reading, in which all of this is foretold -- she's not reading the latest bestseller, she's reading the Book of Isaiah. And then, gently extending her right hand toward Saint John, she thinks, "Not yet."

Heaven has come down to earth. This is very clearly spelled out in the Alba Madonna: You have the blue sky, the landscape washed by that same blue, and no other blue in that picture but in the Virgin's dress.

But all this becomes very tenuous. The symbolism is there, but it's always deniable. And somebody who wants to be skeptical can always say, "It's just a landscape, and you're reading too much into it." And that's all right. It's in the nature of pictures like this that they open up vast ranges of interpretation.

Lesser pictures tend to be more unilateral. It takes the highest kind of imaginative visualization to embody something that is two things at the same time. Such pictures -- and the Alba Madonna is a great example of one -- give each person a choice for how much you want to read into them.

If you receive the Alba Madonna as a common outdoor spree, you see the figures disporting themselves in the open air on a clear day, and everybody is happy. That's all right, if that's what you want to get out of it.

Or if you want to take it formally, the artist is interested in nothing but composing a group of three figures in the tightest possible cluster, without diminishing their freedom of movement. That alone is quite a feat -- and Raphael brings it off.

Looking at the Alba Madonna, at the coexistence of its three figures, I see them form a kind of closed loop. Raphael makes you see that cluster of three bodies as though it were a single anatomy, and that's an extraordinary imaginative feat. You can write it off as pure formalism -- but it's not pure formalism. The figures do belong together, theologically.

The picture is a lesson to art historians to stop pulling formal considerations and symbolic considerations from separate drawers. For the artist, they are coincident.


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