Raphael at the Prado: Madonna of the Rose

August 3, 2012

The Late Raphael exhibitions across the Prado and Louvre in 2012 provided the opportunity for advanced technical study of the working practises of Raphael and his studio in Rome.  In the first of four posts examining works from the exhibitions, I have selected Madonna of the Rose as an example of the technical aspect of Raphael studies. In this case, documentary sources and basic visual analysis were unable to successfully resolve debates over the nature of the support the work was created on, and aspects of the composition. It was only through technical examination completed in preparation for the 2012 exhibitions that these issues were finally resolved.  The following case study drew on many sources, and is presented in the format of the Open Raphael Online resource, the first phase of which is scheduled for public launch in late 2012.

Madonna of the Rose
Madonna della Rosa
Prado Museum, Madrid. inv.302
c.1520 (Prado, Oberhuber 1999) c.1517-18 (Meyer zur Capellen 2005)  c.1518 (De Vecchi 1987) c.1516 (Henry & Joannides 2012)
Oil on panel - transferred to canvas
103 x 84cm
Listed by the Prado as an autograph work by Raphael
Workshop contribution suggested by various authors - see attribution history.

The documented ownership history of this piece begins in Spain. The specifics of its passage from Italy to Spain are unknown.

Prior to 1667 Unknown from documentary sources
1667 Noted by Padre Francisco de los Santos in the monastery at El Escorial, in the chapter hall of the prior
1857 Incorporated into the Prado collection

The scene depicts the Holy family and the infant Saint John the Baptist, with the Christ child held by the Virgin. The Christ child's right foot rests on his mother's left knee and his left foot rests on a table with a rose on it. The table and the rose are not noted in sixteenth century copies. There is some contention over Joseph's inclusion in the composition, with the suggestion that he may have been added later to what was originally a design for a Madonna and child with Saint John arrangement as seem in the Madonna di Loreto. (Meyer zur Capellen). 

The meeting of the infant Saint John the Baptist and Christ is from an extra biblical source known as the Pseudo-Bonaventura, describing the Holy Family's return from Egypt. The scene depicted is sourced from the Pseudo-Bonaventura text Meditationes vitae Christi (c.1300). It relates the encounter with Saint John on the return from Egypt:
It is said, that the part of the Jordan in which John baptized, is that over which the children of Israel passed, when they came through this desert on their way from Egypt; and that John did penance near the same place. So that it is at least possible that the Child Jesus might find him there on His return from Egypt, Fancy then you see him joyfully receiving them : while they, remaining with him awhile, and partaking of his coarse and homely fare, share with him, in return, the sweets of spiritual refreshment, and then take their leave of him. [Trans. Oakeley. 1868]
This was a common theme in Renaissance art and liberties were frequently taken in the mode of depiction when compared with the textual source, which states that the encounter took place in the desert, and not in a meadow or garden. In this instance, the landscape has been suppressed in order to focus on the composition of the figures. In the numerous depictions of the Holy Family attributed to Raphael and his studio during his period in Rome, an evolution can be noted from the less complex pyramidal arrangement of figures typical in Florentine period works such as the Madonna of the Goldfinch and La Belle Jardinière. Like these earlier works, the central group reveals a pyramidal structure but the figures interact in a more subtle and complex manner. In addition, the overall palette is noted as darkened compared to Raphael's earlier works.

The infant Saint John the Baptist holds a crucifix made of reed in his left hand. The meaning associated with the reed in this instance is twofold - first to denote Saint John as "the just, who dwell on the banks of the waters of grace" (Ferguson). In addition the reed is also a symbol of the Passion - as Christ was offered a vinegar soaked sponge on  the end of a reed while on the cross, and is seen as the humiliation of greatness. Hence the reed crucifix could be read as a visual description of not only Saint John but a foreshadowing of the Passion - along with the scroll the infants hold proclaiming ECCE AGNUS DEI (behold the lamb of God), a reference to the Gospel of Saint John (1:29) "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world."

The rose, which inspired the painting's popular name is now recognised as a later addition, demonstrated by X-Ray analysis and comparison with early copies. Therefore, the rose is not relevant to our understanding of the original symbolic program.

The green curtain
Green drapery is apparent in the background of this picture (it is more clearly visible under strong light.) Green backgrounds (drapery and otherwise) figure in various pieces attributed to Raphael and his studio during his Roman phase, including portraits and devotional images, although this characteristic is seldom discussed in the literature. The Sistine Madonna , also a devotional image, is the most famous example of green drapery in Raphael’s oeuvre , but we cannot assume a direct link through color symbolism due to essential differences in the content and context of the two works.

click to enlarge

The curtain motif (dubbed cortina in the literature) has been noted in Christian art extending at least as far back as the Early Coptic church, with numerous examples to be seen in the Middle ages. Most pertinent to Raphael however, is the appearance of the same motif in works by both his father, Giovanni Santi and by Perugino.  A detailed summary of the history of interpretation of this motif is provided by Eberlein, with more plausible variations including a symbol of revelation, or a delineation of sacred space, such as argued by Freedberg:
The curtain ...reads as if it were at once a simulacrum of the covering often hung before a painting and the curtain of a window. It has been drawn open to reveal the picture, and in the same moment to reveal a vision in the sky beyond the wall. The curtain has been pulled open by the Saints, Barbara and Sixtus...In answer to our, prayer to them, the Saints, in their precise role as intercessors between us and the divine Persons, have besought the revelation of the Virgin and her Child to us.

Related compositions
Henry and Joannides refer to a previous Raphael work, the Aldobrandini [aka Garvagh] Madonna (c.1509) as an earlier form of the composition realised in the Madonna of the Rose and Madonna del Pesce (c.1513-14). The interaction of the infants is particularly noteworthy across each of these works, with Raphael constantly evaluating different configurations to suit the size of the work and an intended meaning. Direction of the figures' gaze, the gestures of arms and hands, along with held and exchanged objects have been explored by writers commenting on Raphael's inventive technique and implied meaning.

click to enlarge

Among the more distinctive characteristics of the infants in this composition is the open position of their mouths, previously only seen in a work from Raphael's Florentine period, the Canigiani Holy Family (1507). As summarised by Henry and Joannides,
Both children are shown with open mouths and are, it seems speaking to each other. In the Canigiani Holy Family our imaginations are distracted by the virtuosic complexity of the composition: but in the Rosa the oral exchange is one of the two threads that connect the children [the other being the scroll.]

Underdrawing and related drawing?
Much of the layer of preparatory gesso was removed during the transfer from panel to canvas approximately two hundred years ago. Gonzales Mozo (2012) assesses the surviving underdrawing and notes that adjustments in the course of painting seem to reinforce that which appears on imprimatura layer (the painted layer directly over preparatory ground).

A drawing at the Louvre, commonly described as a design after Raphael has come under closer scrutiny following recent technical investigation. In preparation for the Prado and Louvre exhibitions of 2012, a number of pieces from Raphael's Roman phase were examined by technical staff from the respective museums. Infrared reflectography of Madonna of the Rose revealed Joseph's hands were originally part of the composition. As Henry and Joannides relate:
The underdrawing recently revealed...shows that Joseph was planned together with the other figures, although his position was then a little different and his left hand was visible, placed behind Saint John's shoulder, pushing him forward with the back of his [right] hand....The composition seen in the underdrawing is recorded...in a hitherto little regarded drawing in the Louvre, which may copy either a lost modello or, perhaps, the drawn inlay of the panel.

click to enlarge

Condition - pigment and panel characteristics
Pigment medium is reported as oil. Further notes on its condition were recorded by Meyer zur Capellen
  • Losses and cracks are revealed by visible light and X-Ray examination
  • A heavy use of lead white has been noted in central figures
  • Pentimenti can be observed in both infants, with Christ's head initially shown in profile
  • A strip of canvas was added to the lower right portion, upon which the table and rose, along with a portion of the Christ child's left foot were added. It is unknown when this was added, though early copies if this piece do not show this detail.
There has been some discrepancy in the literature on this point. As recently as 2005 Meyer zur Capellen reported that the painting was executed directly onto canvas. This issue was finally resolved by the recent technical investigations conducted for the 2012 exhibitions. Commenting in 1990, Alonso's original statement - derived from documentary sources - seems validated by the recent technical findings.

Alonso (1990), reporting on the conservation of Raphael works in Spain states quite clearly that the painting was transferred from panel to canvas.
Of these, four were transferred from their original wooden supports to canvas during the years when they were in Paris, from 1813 to 1818, having been taken out of Spain during the retreat of the Napoleonic army. The necessity for changing the supports, deemed absolutely imperative at the time, and described by Villa-Urrutia, was highly praised by Spanish witnesses who claimed that the paintings suffered scarcely any damage or loss of color. The four paintings that were transferred to canvas are: Spasimo de Sicilia, The Visitation, Madonna of the Fish and Madonna of the Rose. The radical treatment of these works resulted in the loss of their original supports, an integral and essential part of any work, but also altered their appearance completely, for the transfer gave them a different quality and texture, in which the weave of the cloth on which they were glued was plainly revealed, instead of the smooth, even, refined surface of the panel.
Ruiz-Manero (1996) suggested that the debate is ongoing
There is the possibility, in my opinion, that the picture was realised on canvas and then attached to a panel at some point, which would explain the vertical damages.
Meyer zur Capellen (2005) noted,
The work is one of the few paintings Raphael painted straight onto canvas. Already at an early date the canvas was given a doublé lining. The X-Ray photograph as well as inspection of the surface reveal numerous losses and cracks, probably the reason for the extra lining.
In the catalogue of the 2012 Late Raphael exhibition, Henry and Joannides clarify,
Until recently it has been widely accepted that the Madonna della Rosa originated on canvas but technical investigation has established that, although in unusually good condition for a transfer, it was painted on panel. 
The technical reports provided in the 2012 catalogue by Gonzalez Mozo are primarily concerned with Raphael's painting technique during his Roman phase, and hence there is little extra detail provided on the panel of this painting. The wood species for example, has not been reported in any study to date.

Attribution history
In Spain, the painting has been consistently attributed to Raphael as its sole author, as reflected by the Prado's own labelling until the present day. The nature of the palette and execution of some of the figures, particularly the addition of Saint Joseph has raised the question of workshop involvement from an early date. A summary of attributions stated in catalogues follows, primarily based on the outline provided by Dussler in 1971. There are multiple appearances by some who authors who revised their position on the piece in different publications.

Raphael as sole author (or without clarification of workshop involvement)
Müntz (1882) ; Rosenberg (1906) ; Marques (1985) ; Ruiz-Manero (1996)

Execution attributed to Raphael and workshop
Brizio (1963) ; Meyer zur Capellen (2005) ; Gruyer (1869) execution shared with Giulio Romano ; Oberhuber (1999) ; Henry and Joannides (2012) - assign the painting to Raphael, but  clarify workshop involvemnet is "not to be excluded" in some passages.

Workshop execution based on Raphael design
Passavant (1858) ; Dussler (1971) ; De Vecchi (1987) ;

Attribution to Raphael rejected
Gronau (1923) Berenson (1932) ; Gamba (1949)

Attributed to Giulio Romano 
Frizzoni (1893) ; Crowe & Cavalcaselle (1882)

Attributed to Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni
Fischel (1948) ; Camesasca (1962) ; Dussler (1966)

Execution by Raffaellino dal Colle 
Waagen (1868)

Design by Giulio Romano, executed by Raffaelino dal Colle 
Freedberg (1962)

This work proved highly popular in Spain, and it was copied soon after its first known sighting there in 1667. Fuller accounts of the known copies are presented by Ruiz-Manero and Meyer zur Capellen. A derivative version attributed to Giulio Romano, known as the Novar Madonna is now in Edinburgh. 

click to enlarge

A version on panel, popularly known as the Madonna of Bogota famously turned up in Colombia in the 1930s. This was reported widely in news accounts, but the picture was by Ruiz-Manero and Meyer zur Capellen omitted from their recent discussions of the known copies. Back in the 1930s, the painting was in a seriously damaged state, but was reportedly sent to the Metropolitan Museum in New York for examination and later to the Art Institute in Chicago for restoration. There was some later debate as to whether the piece was an autograph original by Raphael or realised with studio participation. Its present location is unknown.

In December 2011 a version on panel inscribed "Escuela de Rafael" (school of Raphael) was sold at Sotheby's Old Master Sale in London, though a closer examination of the documentary and technical evidence provided no clear line of evidence allowing the piece to be linked to Raphael's studio.

Alonso. R. (Trans. Talbot, T.). Restoration of he Madonna of the Oak and Conservation of Raphael's Paintings in the Prado. in The Princeton Raphael Symposium: Science in the Service of Art History. Princeton University Press. 1990. pp.141-147

Bonaventure, Oakeley, F. [Trans.] The life of Jesus Christ. Simpkin, Marshall & Co. 1868. pp.60-61 link

De Vecchi, P. The Complete Paintings of Raphael. Penguin. 1987. Cat. No. 141. p.117

Dussler, L. Raphael - A Critical Catalogue. Phaidon. 1971. p. 49. link

Eberlein, JK. The Curtain in Raphael's Sistine Madonna. The Art Bulletin. Vol.65 (1983). No.1. pp. 61-77.

Freedberg, SJ. Painting of the High Renaissance in Rome and Florence. Cambridge. Massachusetts. 1962, (cited by Dussler and Eberlein).

Gonzalez Mozo, A. Raphael's Painting Technique in Rome. in Henry & Joannides, Late Raphael. exh. cat. Museo Nacional del Prado Publishing. 2012.  pp. 319-323, 337.

Henry. T & Joannides, P. The Madonna della Rosa. Late Raphael. exh. cat. No. 47, 48.  Museo Nacional del Prado Publishing. 2012. pp. 192-106.
nb. The Louvre drawing's "recording" of the underdrawing composition is noted as a discovery conveyed to the authors by Ana Gonzalez Mozo, a member of the Prado's technical staff.

Madonna della Rosa. Prado Museum site. Accessed December 6 2011 link

Meyer zur Capellen, J. Raphael - The Paintings. Arcos Verlag. 2003. Vol 2. pp.178-182

Niyazi, H. Examining workshop attributions - a Raphael case study. 3 Pipe Problem. Accessed May 2 2012. link

Oberhuber, K. Raphael: The Paintings. Prestel. 1999. Cat. No. 246. p.253

Old Master and British Paintings Day Sale for December 8 2011. Lot 107. Sotheby's.com. Accessed December 6 2011 link

Ruiz-Manero. Pintura Italiana del Siglo XVI en Espana. Vol.2 Rafael y su escuela. Madrid. 1996. online excerpt: link

The Canberra Times. Friday October 20, 1939. Genuine Raphael Found. Accessed May 3 2012 at Trove website link ; a newspaper account of the Madonna of Bogota.

Many thanks to Dr. Edward L. Goldberg for the translation of the Ruiz-Manero text.

Image notes
Hi-resolution version avaialable via Prado Museum website link
Hi-resolution Aldobrandini-Garvagh Madonna via National Gallery London website link
Novar Madonna via National Galleries Scotland website link


Anonymous said...

Amazing stuff H! I enjoyed your presentation of the subject mixed in among the other details.

We often read accounts that consider thematic or technical aspects separately, but very rarely are they balanced so nicely. This will make your "Open Raphael Online" site interesting, not to mention useful, for a broad spectrum of readers.

Keep up the great work
Stephanie S

Dr. F said...

As usual, a very nice and thorough job. Let me add something about the reed although it is very difficult for me to see it. The explanation might more easily be taken from the gospel of Matthew. verse 11:7.

"As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze?"

Also, Matthew 12:20 recalling the words of Isaiah referring to Jesus:

"He will not break the crushed reed, nor put out the smoldering wick till he has led the truth to victory."


Unknown said...

Cheers for the comments!

@Stephanie - it takes a bit of work, but is highly satisfying to bring together the different elements into a summary like this. In these sacred works in particular, so much of the symbolic language that would have been familiar to contemporaries has been lost - by pointing out some of the more consistent themes, we can bring an added layer of appreciation to Raphael than the "painter of sweet Madonnas" perception he largely has at the moment.

@Frank - Thank you for the insights. The reed can be established as an attribute of Saint John long before Raphael - in this context at least the crucifixion reference seems most apt - the "Holy Family" and "Madonna and child" images are essentially about foreshadowing future events. That being said, we may likely find other depictions of the Saint which would fit the passages you have cited.

Kind Regards

Anonymous said...

Hey H,

Just stopping by...to see the great work you are doing continue!

I thought I'd add a link from wiki on the Bogata Madonna showing a before and after image.


It seems to me that this is a closely matching painting to the Madonna of the Rose version.

I'm not sure about the size of the Bogata version.

But I would ask, in general, what would compell an artist to repaint the same scene again....unless maybe for the reason that someone else likes the original so much that they commission the artist to make another? What are your thoughts?

Best Regards,
Jeff H.

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