More from Leo Steinberg

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, we was already doing pioneering work on Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. His 1983 booked called "The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion" -- a deeply 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.

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." It's an internal psychological conflict, in which the Virgin is aware of the destiny of the Child and the purpose of his incarnation. In the Christian scheme, Christ's entire life is to be conceived as the Passion, because it begins at the first bleeding, at the Circumcision, and it ends at the last bleeding, when his side is pierced on the cross by the spear of Longinus.

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 of infant play. And the Virgin, who understands what all this means, 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."

The Virgin's mantle is the blue of heaven -- though more saturated, substantiated. It's a symbol that runs through a lot of Italian Renaissance painting. With the incarnation, 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.

GOPNIK: I'm interested in your use of the word "washed." One of the notable features in this painting is that the middleground in the landscape is actually a body of water. And when you see Christ and St John the Baptist with water between them, that does seem like a reference to earlier paintings of Christ's baptism.

Well, water is the saving element, as opposed to the other three -- earth, air, fire. Baptismal water is what cleanses original sin and makes salvation possible.

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 -- a management of ambiguity which you get in Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. 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.

When you have a circular picture, the first thing you notice is that it's not square, and you become more aware of problems of accommodation -- much more than in a conventional picture. If I start to project the Virgin's left foot from the lower left of the picture, and trace that marvelous, vigorous sweep, up her leg, past her knee, through her arm and left elbow, and then turning inward, past her left shoulder to her head and so on, I immediately get this sense of a circular sweep. And does this sweep determine the contours of the picture, or is it the contours of the picture that determine the Virgin's action? That's unanswerable -- it's both.

And then the ingenuity of asserting what in geometry is called a chord. The horizon line makes a chord, and the ground line, just below, makes another. Then if you look at the little St John, and his right elbow thrusting inward, and then the Christ Child's left knee, and then the book and the Virgin's hand, you see a chord that's slightly tilted. It's Raphael's way of animating and stabilizing the circularity of the picture.

GOPNIK: And does that impact on the symbolism? Is there a relationship between those issues of surface composition and the iconography?

STEINBERG: I would think so. 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 hree 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.

Interview conducted, edited and condensed by Blake Gopnik.

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