Understanding motherliness

YOU could say that the subject of this fine Raphael drawing - made probably about 1512 when this High Renaissance artist was in Rome working for Pope Julius II - is quite simply motherliness. Only the frequency of Raphael's exploration, throughout his short, intense career, of the specifically Christian iconography of the Virgin and child would suggest that this, too, is a picture representing Mary and her son, Christ Jesus. Virtually everything about it suggests that Raphael's chief interest on this occasion was the very human observation of a young mother reading, either to herself or her child, while the child's interest is caught momentarily by something else and he turns to look toward the viewer with an engaging movement contrary to his mother's strongly holding arm: a subject that would seem quite at home in the secular world of Vermeer and De Hooch in 17th-century Holland.

In fact, art historians have been particularly intrigued that in this drawing (and another very similar one belonging to Oxford's Ashmolean Museum) Raphael took his depiction of the warmth and intricacy of the mother-and-child relationship to such a point of domestic realism, with no overt ecclesiastical context nor, apparently, in response to some church, or privately pious, commission.

This difference from the vast majority of Raphael's studies and paintings of the mother and child theme can, however, be seen as a natural development in his art and in art in general. Artists for centuries before the early 16th had investigated every nuance of the popular subject of the Virgin Mother and her child. The power of patronage had demanded this, of course; artists of the Middle Ages and Renaissance didn't work for themselves.

Italian artists of the 15th and 16th centuries, however, did gradually instill the subject matter of art with new trends of thought. There was a shift, often slight, toward the more naturalistic and human in their treatment of religious themes. There was also a vigorous interest in learning, particularly in Rome, where ancient sculptural remains abounded, from classical models: A new concept of form and monu-mentality was introduced into their art, and a new respect for the pre-Christian past. Raphael was a part of this development, as were Leonardo and Michelangelo, from whom he learned and absorbed many things.

In Renaissance paintings and sculptures of the Madonna and child, the child becomes more convincingly a baby, particularly plump and beautiful, certainly believably little and infantlike. This is in contrast to some of the babies portrayed by sculptors in the Middle Ages, when they seemed to have had difficulty realizing a form for the child that showed him to be a human baby yet, at the same time, the Son of God. The results were sometimes a ``baby Jesus'' who looked like a small adult - mature way beyond his years. This may also, of course, have been symptomatic of an attitude toward children which turned them into ``adults'' at a very early age.

The babies depicted by Leonardo, on the other hand, displayed typically childish touches of behavior, playing and moving about much more freely. His drawings of them, often apparently sketched in haste and from life, show an increasing desire for naturalism and accuracy. Raphael followed his example.

This should not be seen, however, as a contradiction of the basic religious purpose of his art. His aim was clearly enhancement of this purpose, not deviation from it. The result was an imagery that on the human level was credible while it elevated the human to an ideal state. To a degree the Virgin and child was surely meant as a paradigm for all mothers and children, and Raphael's gentle appreciation of qualities of motherliness - its understandings, affections, and wholeness - has a universal appeal.

Many of Raphael's drawings relate quite specifically to his known paintings. The drawing shown here does not. An engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi was made after it, and it seems possible that Raphael drew it with this in mind. For technique he used silverpoint on gray prepared paper, with highlights painted in white - a three-tone drawing. Silverpoint was used to train young artists in the 15th century. It involved using a stylus made of silver which left a faint but firm mark and required concentrated discipline and control. Erasure was impossible.

Raphael continued to favor silverpoint long after his apprenticeship days. Its exactitude seems to have appealed to him, its cleanness and its strength. Francis Ames-Lewis has pointed out that the ``inflexible precision'' of silverpoint line ``can be directly converted into an engrave outline,'' suggesting that Raphael used silverpoint on this occasion because he knew the drawing was going to be copied by the engraver.

The drawing has been given a variety of titles, evidencing the uncertainty of scholars - ``Study for an Engraved Madonna and Child'' is, most recently, Ames-Lewis's choice. But J.A. Gere and Nicholas Turner in 1983 opted for ``A Seated Woman Reading, Embracing a Child Standing at Her Side'' and Paul Joannides later the same year in his complete catalog of Raphael's drawings simplified it to ``Mother Reading with Child.''

Gere and Turner observe that it is ``unusual to find the Christ Child so fully dressed ... in a cap and shoes and even leggings.'' And they reserve judgment on the precise subject, saying: ``The usual interpretation of the subject as The Virgin and Child may well be correct, but the possibility that Raphael was here trying his hand at a scene of domestic genre cannot be excluded.'' It is a drawing interestingly open to interpretation.

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