Expanded Text of Mary Garrard Interview

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 and professor emerita at American University, is one of the founders of feminist art history. She recently completed work on a book about nature, art and gender in Renaissance Italy.

This painting is considered the epitome of Renaissance classicism, displaying harmony, grace, balance, ease of movement and so forth -- and people have a right to want that from art. Other people of course find all of the Raphael madonnas cliched, the epitome of boring, sentimental religious art. So it's perfect or it's boring -- how do you break through this?

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. That's the reason the classical style is favored by banks and museums (the National Gallery's West Building being a case in point) that want to gain prestige, or shore it up. The result is a constructed identity: Art is often telling us things that are not true.

Classicism is a cultural defense against change, against the transitory, against disruption and conflict -- rather than representing some kind of perfection in a vacuum. 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 tondo type probably grew out of the round birth trays used in childbirth rituals, which were themselves decorated with birthing imagery. Paintings like this may have served as aids to conception in the bedchamber, the image of a beautiful child or mother believed to stimulate the mother to produce a beautiful child. In a way they were trying to induce nature to copy art.

An early 15th-century writer, Giovanni Domenici, says that it's good to have images of saints and virgins and holy children in the home, as models for children. The boys he says are seized by some kinds of examples, and the girls by others. In that sense the images reinforce virtues -- and of course they also reinforce gender roles. The image of the Virgin as the happy caretaker, as you might say she is here, reinforces her role as wife and mother. But were there aspects of this identity that might have met resistance? Does the picture's classicism conceal cultural tensions?

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.

In the 15th century you had Botticelli, and earlier Filippo Lippi, showing Mary as an adolescent bride, or as a young mother who tenderly protects the child. And then she turns into the virile, strong figure we see here.

GOPNIK: Let's not forget that the most finished drawing for this painting is of a young man posing as the Virgin.

GARRARD: That's true -- though that was the Renaissance practice, because they didn't typically have female models in the studio. But this does account for it in part, because Raphael is thinking male as he develops the figure, then he turns it into a woman at the last minute.

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 feedsthe 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. It appears at first glance that she's looking at John and he's looking back at her. But actually she's not looking at him. Her gaze does not complete the circuit.

GOPNIK: Her gaze is interesting -- seeing that much of the whites of a figure's eyes. It seems to me a striking quality in this picture that her gaze is so averted from us.

GARRARD: One might say about this figure that she's made to be looked at . She looks away, turns her profile to you. She's avoiding the viewer's gaze, but also posing for it.

Even though Mary seems at first glance to be the dominant figure, it's the two males who are energized by the design. In one of the earliest drawings for the painting, the only figure who's really developed is the Christ Child, already in this pose -- that's where Raphael starts.

And, of course, the lines that lead to Christ's little penis are abundant, so we don't need to spell that out. It is a display of God's descent to earth and assumption of human form.

There Mary is, monumental, seemingly very powerful: Her left hand isfully 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. For all the apparent naturalism, the anatomy is wrong: The breasts are too high. And right at the exact center of the tondo format, a dark cavity marks the locus of birth, her womb. The product of her womb, Christ, is of course the great achievement of Mary, according to Catholic theology, but it's a negative virtue. And the positive consequence of that womb literally overshadows it -- Christ's body casts a shadow over that part of Mary's anatomy. So it reiterates her role as the vessel for incarnation -- but only the vessel. Not as a functional, birth-giving or nursing mother.

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. Mothers are very confident that motherhood is really more important work than a lot of jobs in the world, even if it doesn't have the status that other jobs have. The full scope of that work isn't in this painting.

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."

Renaissance art is full of women and men shown in gender-constructed roles, over and over, performing their duties within those roles. This is the way art and society speak to each other, and set up models that seem to be natural -- because art tells you they're natural. So in terms of its function, that's what the Alba Madonna does. But the analysis by which we arrive at understanding wha it does and how it does it gives us a reason to engage the painting.

I thought I was tired of it. But then I got un-tired again -- simply by beginning to pull away its bulletproof shield, and to wonder what might be going on beneath the surface.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Blake Gopnik.

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