Today’s Politics of the Sistine Madonna UPDATE: What’s Raphael doing?


M.T. sent in a postcard sporting the Sistine Madonna by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael). The postcard itself arrived a bit damaged, as postcards do, so the above is a Wikipedia file.

I’m thankful for a reminder of the Sistine Madonna (with its wild history of locations both for the real painting and my mom’s copy) as it throws me fully into nostalgic mode. But that would be known from what I’ve written over the years. This was my mom’s favorite painting which always graced the “living room” of whatever house we lived in. Her copy looked like the real thing (to a kid like me) and was very elegantly framed. My mom made the frame and “antiqued” it. All very stately.

I would stand before this painting in wonder as a kid. It was my secret way to peek into heaven. There was heaven, right there, for all to see. How is it that the angels in the background allowed me to live. Even the angels are bored down front as they tolerate my presence. Did others see the treasures to be found here, in heaven? For me, these were mesmerizing sacred moments, so many, but always the same right through the years and in different houses: I would be racing about as a kid but then, in passing this painting, I would stop, instantly transported to the gates of heaven. Out of breath in my running. But absolutely still. “Look!” thought I, “There are all the angels!” straining as I was to see not so much the two angels out front, but the zillions in the background.

“Wow…” constituted the extent of my art appreciation at the time, though I imagine that that word was inscaped with more of a Hopkins’ umph than most grownup critics could ever muster with all their ulterior motives.

I remember being miffed that I didn’t know who Pope Sixtus was, or, as such a little kid, what his tiara was, and that I didn’t know who Saint Barbara was. But no matter. I happily gazed into the faces of Mary and her Son Jesus. M.T. shared his thoughts about these faces with me. I suppose I should return the favor with some of my own musings at this stage in my life.


M.T. says he sees something “stern” in the face of Jesus. The way I myself would describe that is something of dread determination in the face of what is to come for Jesus during His life upon this earth, yet joy for what the result will finally be when He comes to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire. Jesus and His good mom are totally in solidarity with each other and mean to accomplish that which they set out to do for our redemption and salvation. But as with all such paintings, you have to follow the eyes, and in context. What’s said with just this detail is not wrong, but it’s all out of context. So, let’s move back to the full painting.

You’ll notice that young Saint Barbara, Virgin and Martyr, is looking down at the two angels who entered heaven, as did she, by the right choice to follow the Son of Mary. We have to remember that about angels. They, like us, had to say “Yes!” They expect us to use our free will correctly as well.

You’ll notice that Sixtus is bidding Jesus and Mary to look out from heaven to those here upon the earth. It’s as if Sixtus is saying “Look at what they are saying about me!” with “they” referring to those at whom he is indiscriminately pointing. And Jesus is looking over him – indeed over the viewer of the painting – and Mary is scanning the crowd also in back of the viewer of the painting (her eyes just a bit askance). As Sixtus makes his complaint, Jesus has already gone through His passion and death, and has risen from the dead and has ascended into heaven. But here Sixtus is addressing Jesus as a child. That surely refers to what Sixtus is complaining about.

There was a vicious gossip columnist in Rome at the time – given no credence by anyone – who wrote about Sixtus in such manner – repeating without discernment all that he heard – that you would think that gossip guy is writing in late 2018, all stuff about interfering with kids and young men.

Again, back to Jesus and Mary: there’s a certain foreboding, a certain sorrow, but also and more importantly a certain joy for those who will make it to heaven. Note as well that Sixtus himself is canonized in the painting. He’s up in the clouds of heaven. Is protected by the bored angels who would happy to do some janitorial work over against enemies if called upon, and can speak with Jesus and Mary at will, and they are right with him. But the gossip? Horrible. But the truth? That’s what Raphael is painting.

Lots to think about there. To M.T.: Again, thanks for the postcard.

UPDATE: What’s Raphael doing?


Filed under Angels, Jesus, Mary

14 responses to “Today’s Politics of the Sistine Madonna UPDATE: What’s Raphael doing?

  1. elizdelphi

    the newly built church on the university campus near here has a copy of that painting at the front behind the altar, without Sixtus or Catherine. Mary’s eyes (which you notice even in the original are huge and far apart) are a little too huge and far apart in the copy, which distracts me, Jesus is also not as winsome, it still looks good, but I feel like it would have been nice to have truly original, traditional sacred art. But it is for university students so no matter how famous the painting is it is new to them.

    On the apse dome, up above the SIstine Madonna, is a huge forbidding looking byzantine style Jesus with His arms spread apart, some think it looks like Jesus is going to hug you but I think it looks like He’s the judge. I’m not sure how I feel about the combination of such different styles. But the forbidding Jesus does balance out the sweet virgin and Child!

  2. Gina Nakagawa

    The Renaissance was a time of great upheaval, intrigue and out an d out sin of every kind imaginable and unimaginable, but it is rescued by two facts:
    1) The passage of time coupled with the human refusal to learn from the lessons of history.
    2) The great treasure trove of stunning beauty it has left to succeeding generations.
    What will our legacy be? Perhaps we should consider that, because, unfortunately, it will not be magnificent architecture, visual arts or music. It had better be great love for Christ, His Bride, the Churchand a great willingness to suffer for the sake of the Fath. Surely that is coming.

  3. sanfelipe007

    I have seen the two angels at the bottom of this work, on all manner of bathroom decorations, towels and tissue boxes. Sigh. But for an artist to reproduce this masterpiece while excluding important elements of the work, is especially disappointing to me. At least from what I understand from Elizabeth’s comment.

    Or maybe it was a cropping of the original? Still, I view this as an error by omission, kind of like a Protestant Bible, it lacks the fullness of truth.

  4. elizdelphi

    Felipe, yes it is a newly hand-painted copy. College students don’t know who Pope St Sixtus or St Catherine of Alexandria… oops I see Fr George said it is Saint Barbara, well I don’t know much if anything about either! are nor are they “popular” saints today like they once were, so I think that would be the reason for the omission/dumbing down. This church has mosaic portraits of about 6 or 7 female and 6 or 7 male saints along the left and right sides of the nave, that are some saints that are considered popular or relevant to young people today, the portraits show the saints all looking youthful.

  5. elizdelphi

    Raphael is pleading with them to help him make them look beautiful so we will be drawn in to consider and long for their holiness.

  6. Glad you liked it, and I haven’t been a follower of this blog long enough to realise how much you liked the Sistine Madonna already! 🙂
    I also know next to nothing about art history. Uh, what is Raphael doing? Honestly, no idea, besides pulling back the green curtains for a look at what goes on in heaven: to see the glorified saints caught up in the vision of Mary and Jesus and the angels, to get a glimpse of the glory of the heavenly choir, to see the beauty of Our Lady with Our Lord who draws all things to himself. St Sixtus appears to be the one mentioned in the Canon of the Mass. I read that he would not let his flock suffer martyrdom ahead of him but fell under the executioner’s sword that they would be preserved. So definitely some intercession going on there. Saint Barbara…according to wikipedia she was essentially a princess in a tower who ordered three windows instead of two to be built in honour of the Holy Trinity, then was beheaded by her pagan father for her faith after enduring torture multiple times. And venerated by souls all over the world who work with explosives or tunneling or mining among other things. Pray for us!
    I love the radiance glowing around the Virgin and Child and its interaction with the faint figures of the choirs of angels. In an odd way it confuses your perspective. If you look at the Virgin’s feet standing so lightly on the clouds, you can…kind of see how she’s slightly behind St. Barbara. But when you look at her starting with her face, the glowing radiance makes her figure “pop out” as it were. She’s not behind the curtains, she and her Son are in a kind of eternal foreground. I think it’s awfully wonderful in the best way.

  7. sanfelipe007

    Raphael is saying, “look, Sixtus intercedes on your behalf.”

    I have no doubt Sixtus complained in purgatory – but in Heaven he intercedes for those who have recourse to him.

    • Father George David Byers

      Can you spell that out?

      • sanfelipe007

        What part am I to spell out? “he intercedes for those who have recourse to him” simply means those sinners who have a devotion to St. Sixtus and request his intercession; in particular Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work.
        Or perhaps, since he was martyred, Sixtus should have skipped purgatory. I would simply observe that Sixtus already endured his purgatory in life, during which he complained, if not out loud, then in his heart. Who knows? I certainly don’t.

        Perhaps we differ on the meaning of “complain” especially in the context of heaven. Should we find ourselves together in Heaven, we may not even need to discuss the subject. Until that hoped for day, I am all ears.

      • Father George David Byers

        Perhaps I am mistaken. I’m still way over tired from the trip to Rome. But I’m thinking that whatever with the halo and being in heaven, the likeness of St Sixtus is instead that of Sixtus IV, in whose honor Julius commissioned this painting. Sixtus IV had detractors. Raphael thinks that’s all BS. So what’s Raphael saying in the painting?

  8. sanfelipe007

    First, I think that a clue to the identity, of which Sixtus is depicted, is to be found in his garments.

    Second, I can see Raphael creating an ambiguity there in order to please more than one group. Say, those who wished for the rehabilitation of Sixtus IV reputation, and those who wanted only to see Sixtus I. Such are the forces at play whenever an artist of great esteem is commissioned by those with, and around those with power and influence.

  9. Aussie Mum

    Perhaps the angels are more exasperated than bored because, like Sixtus, we still don’t get it. Persecution is inevitable. The Cross can’t be avoided. As Christ suffered, so also the Church.

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