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The Monumental Base Of a Classic Triangle

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

Mary Garrard, 71, is professor emerita at American University. Her 1989 book on the baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi established Garrard as a leader in feminist art history. She recently completed work on a book about nature, art and gender in Renaissance Italy.

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Raphael's painting can get more interesting, I think, if you begin to question it.

The keynote of High Renaissance style is the equilateral triangle -- it's the compositional structure here, and in so many other Madonna paintings. Well, here's my question: People have often said that the stable form of the equilateral triangle reflects the confidence and serenity of the age. But if you're truly confident and serene, you wouldn't have to insist on it. It seems to me that this stabilizing structure might reflect insecurity, not confidence. It's motivated by the desire to project an image of strength and stability.

Why are these people in a meadow? Well, you can think, it's an ideal setting, it's timeless. But another way of thinking is that it's inscribing the Virgin and her child in nature -- to "naturalize" them, to make their gender roles seem normal and necessary.

The first decade of the 16th century in Italy has been identified with a reassertion of patriarchal authority. And it's in this period that you see Holy Family groups surfacing in art. It's a "family values" kind of period. One of the reasons for this is that the return of republican government to Florence brought a return to masculine civic values, as in Michelangelo's "David." "Heroic virility" is my term for this phase both in style and culture, and it is seen in both male and female figures.

Some scholars have described the masculinized Virgin as an honorary male. She's elevated, they say, and masculinity is an honorary sign of her spiritual value. But it seems to me the more important point is that in gaining virility she loses her maternity -- birth-giving, the one thing men couldn't do -- which is her distinctive and essential attribute.

Think of the early 15th-century images of the Madonna Lactans-- the nursing mother -- the one who feeds the child from her body, who touches the child, who's physical with the child. In the Alba Madonna she becomes something else. The Christ child is no longer an infant needing motherly care and protection. He's a fully formed little man. The two boys face each other -- Mary presides, but she doesn't connect with them psychologically.

There Mary is, monumental, seemingly very powerful: Her left hand is fully formed and strong, and it's a very beautiful hand. But her right hand is not visible, and I think that's important, because it limits her agency. She's not controlling anything, really. She's just a kind of frame for the boys, a rectangle defined by her powerful leg, and her arm, and the drapery over it, and the other long arm. But in between is a hollow.

I think everybody's first impression is that this is really a strong and powerful woman. But it's only a shell of strength and power. It takes away what it gives, in terms of the symbolic power that women have had in art at other moments. What's being taken away from Mary is maternity -- maternity as an active enterprise.

But it's very hard to get at this, I have to confess -- because of Raphael's extraordinary ability to balance opposing ideas. Every time you try to say something is true about this image, Raphael comes back and says, "Well no, that's not so. Look at the opposite side of it. I'm showing you that, too."


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