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In July last year I was invited by the Daily Mail to write about Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks. Fleet Street is Fleet Street. They telephoned at 10.30 in the morning asking for their 2.30 deadline that same day. But the people on the Daily Mail Features Desk are friendly and professional, and when they ask me to jump, I jump.
They wanted to feature the painting because the Heritage Lottery Fund had just made its largest ever award of, £11.5 million, to help save the picture for the nation. As you may remember, the Duke of Northumberland had recently sold it privately to the Getty Museum in California for £35 million. Under the current rules the National Gallery had a right of pre-emption provided it could match the same price. It had appealed to the Heritage Lottery Fund for help.
It is not often that a tabloid newspaper gives one a spiritual experience, but I am happy to say that on this occasion it did. As requested by the Daily Mail, I annotated the picture, which they published in full colour, explaining why it was so exceptional. I have to confess that I was not entirely happy to discover the next day that my words of wisdom had been tagged a "bluffer's guide", so I am very grateful to my friend David Meara for this opportunity to explain that I was not bluffing in what I said about the beauty of the picture.
Tabloid newspapers often make unexpected juxtapositions and on this occasion fate decreed that the illustration of the Madonna of the Pinks should appear next to an advertisement for a film called The Hulk. Nonetheless I smiled, for I was aware that Raphael understood the power of contrast. In any case the captions for the advertisement for The Hulk could be rewritten for the Raphael. Thus the adverts banner "a film as big as its hero... truly sensational" (Hulk) becomes "a picture as big as its heroine... truly sensational" (Raphael); and "the most intriguing, intelligent summer block buster we have seen yet..." (Hulk) becomes "the most intriguing intelligent Raphael we have seen yet..."(Raphael).
The Madonna of the Pinks is not the most expensive picture ever sold. In 1990 Christie's sold Van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet for $80 million odd (£43 million at the time). Recently Sotheby's sold Rubens's Rape of the Sabines for £49.5 million. £35 million is a public record for a Raphael, but not a world record in absolute terms.
The picture is tiny, 11 inches by 9 inches, the size of an A4 sheet of paper. So I was tempted to recalculate the prices and find out what each of these pictures cost per square inch. On this basis, the Rubens clocks in at approximately £11,000 per square inch; the Van Gogh at £66,000 per square inch and the Raphael Madonna of the Pinks at a staggering £341,130 per square inch.
I was pleased by this result for it seems to me entirely appropriate that homeopathic doctors should be rated more expensively per square inch than mythological rapes, and that Mary and Jesus together should be considerably more valuable than either of these.
Is the picture part of our National Heritage?
This seems to me a dubious claim. Raphael, in spite of his good looks, beautiful easy manners, success with women, talent, genius, and romantic early death aged 37, was not British. The picture came to the UK only in 1853, bought by an ancestor of the present Duke, in Italy. Since then it had spent most of its life in the UK in a dark corner of Alnwick Castle, unappreciated and unrecognised as a true Raphael. It was only in 1991 that a national gallery curator, Nicholas Penny, noticed it, reassessed it, and it had been on loan to the National Gallery ever since.
What is national heritage? Raphael knew all about national heritage for in his day the churches of Italy were filled with it. They overflowed with old nails, bits of wood, skeletons and bones. These were the revered and hugely expensive heritage relics of the day. Supposedly, they were bits of the True Cross, nails that had pierced the hands of Christ, and the remains of saints who had wrought miracles. At the time they wanted these bits of the heritage desperately, believing that the mere sight of, and contact with, them would alleviate the miseries and horrors of the present day. I fear, sometimes, that today's Heritage lobby often seems to be following closely in these footsteps.
What is Real Heritage?
I thought long and hard about this and found my best answer came from asking "what is my own personal heritage?" It is what I have received from my parents by way of genetics, upbringing, education, and material possessions. But real heritage is also what I hand down to my children. In each case there is the option to squander it, transform it, add to it, destroy it (deliberately, callously or in omelette fashion - you do not make omelettes without destroying eggs -), or to preserve it in aspic.
Raphael went for option three, to add to his heritage, and he did so as few others have done before or since.
Is the Madonna of the Pinks part of our national heritage? My answer, as you will have detected, is no.
Is it part of our collective human and spiritual heritage? My answer is ? you bet it is. And in spades
I would have liked to have given the Heritage Lottery Fund Trustees a knock out answer for its acquisition. Given the subject of the picture, I would have quoted Psalm 127 Verse 3 : - "Lo children are an heritage of the Lord; and the fruit of the womb is his reward".
The Madonna of the Pinks is, by today's standards, a political incorrect work of art. It was given to a young widow going into an enclosed order, a reminder of her life in the outside world which she would never see again. Such a role does not fit easily with today?s views on Equality. The picture was her one earthly possession, to be kept in a box, to be looked at with reverence, a reminder of her previous life and an aid to devotion in her present life. Hence the picture's small size and jewel like quality.
If you look carefully at the picture you can see that the Madonna?s right ear is shown is pierced for an earring but that there is no earring in it. At the time it was painted, in Italy, Jewish women wore earrings to identify themselves, a forerunner of the yellow Star of David worn by the Jews in Central Europe half a century ago. The symbolism is that Mary, once a Jewess, no longer wears an earring to indicate that she has passed from a state of spiritual impurity to Christian purity as the Mother of Christ.
The painting is breathtakingly beautiful and I am grateful to the Daily Mail for causing me to look at it intently for half a day. It is now imprinted on my inner eye and gives me much life enhancement. So in conclusion, it is perhaps appropriate that I try to explain what is beautiful in this painting for me, and also indicate why Raphael considered beauty to be so important.
The picture is beautiful for me for a number of reasons. The young fair-haired girl reminds me of my daughters. We are blessed to have two fair-haired girls and one of them is of similar age and looks to Raphael's Madonna. I am captivated by Mary's modesty and the way it is counterpoised by her baby's immodesty who opens his legs and shows his genitals. I am also enchanted by Mary's stillness and self-possession and the way this is counterpoised by the baby's energetic and attention seeking activity. Both of these are typical examples of Raphael's clever use of contrast. My eye lingers over the gentleness of touch, especially where their hands meet, and the gentleness of both their expressions.
There is also conscious symbolism. Pinks are a flower of the carnation family, and the carnation was used in art to symbolise devotion, marriage and lasting love. Here mother and child give and receive these flowers like an exchange of vows. The underlying message is that this is Mary the Bride of Christ. But you can also see from a few details that this room is a bedchamber. This too is symbolic for it indicates maternity - Mary the Mother of Christ.
I am also thrilled by Raphael's brilliant technical skill. It is a wonderful composition. The two figures form a triangle or pyramid filling most of the picture space and suggesting stability, permanence, dignity and seriousness. The intense jewel like colours, only properly visible by looking at the painting itself, are as clear and as fresh as nature?s and show how the young Raphael has mastered the newly available medium of oil paint. If you look closely, or use a magnifying glass, the finest details of nails, hair, eyelashes and veil are a miracle of observation and manual dexterity.
But it is, I think, more than just a picture of exquisite beauty and painterly dexterity. It is also a celebration of human joy, loving parenthood, maleness and femaleness, giving and receiving. It is also, of course, a superb example of the beauty and power of human skill, creativity and imagination when inspired by God.
It is a picture that makes me feel lucky to be alive and to be one God's creatures.
Raphael and Ideal Beauty
Raphael like Michelangelo was a man of deep seated Christian Faith. They both believed that the Beauty - Ideal Beauty - was an essential element in the search for ultimate truth. They believed that an inspired and beautiful vision was more important than obedience to logic and dogma.
They found Ideal Beauty in Antiquity - the heritage of Greek and Roman Civilisation; they observed it in the world around them, which they looked at with fresh eyes - hence the view through the open window in this little Raphael; and they discovered it above all in God's supreme creation: Man and Woman. Why? Because for them Man and Woman were "the measure of all things".
For all theses reasons they created works like the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Madonna of the Pinks, and it is worth remembering that both were created within a few years of each other, and that they both coincide with the creation of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
So in answer to the Daily Mail's headline question "Is it worth £21 million of your money?" For me the answer is unhesitatingly yes... and even more.