History and Biography, Notes & Essays by David Rodeback, Writing, Language & Books

Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, My Two Favorite Authors, and Mother’s Day

I recently added a small canvas print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (Madonna di San Sisto) to the wall of my study. (The original is nearly nine feet tall; my print is sixteen inches tall.) Much of its appeal to me is its connection to my favorite nineteenth century author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and my favorite twentieth century author, Vasily Grossman. (I studied Russian literature quite seriously for a while.) What this has to do with Mother’s Day … we shall see.

The Painting

Raphael - Sistine Madonna
Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, c. 1513 (public domain image from Wikipedia Commons)

Historians believe that Pope Julius II himself commissioned the painting in 1512 for the monastery church at San Sisto in Piacenza, a town in northern Italy. Raphael likely completed it in 1513 or 1514. It found its way to a museum in Dresden in 1754. Over the centuries it has been celebrated as a great masterpiece and has influenced painting in Germany and Russia in particular.

The painting depicts a heavenly vision. Faces of angels fill the clouds in the background. In the foreground the Madonna holds the Christ child, whose face appears fully as mature as his mother’s. They are flanked by St. Sistus and St. Barbara, both of whom were specially honored at the church for which the painting was commissioned. Two putti (cherubs, to the uninitiated like me) are at the bottom, leaning on an altar, looking wistful if not bored. Many people who haven’t seen the entire painting have seen the putti on t-shirts, postage stamps, and a host of other products.

Dostoevsky and the Sistine Madonna

By the time Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) saw the the Sistine Madonna in its Dresden gallery, Russian culture already revered it as “the quintessence of ideal beauty” (James Billington, The Icon and the Axe, p. 348).

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky

Naturally, this cultural prominence moved early Russian nihilists and socialists to condemn it. In a July 1847 letter Vissarion Belinksy, Dostoevsky’s early mentor, accused the Madonna of being a cold aristocrat disdaining the masses from a distance. Dmitri Pisarev said a cook in St. Petersburg had done more for humanity than Raphael. Mikhail Bakunin reportedly said the painting should be thrown onto the barricades in Dresden to keep soldiers from firing on revolutionaries in an 1849 uprising. And “boots rather than Raphael” is said to have become a revolutionary slogan. (See Billington, p. 349.)

Dostoevsky’s second wife, Anna Grigorievna Snitkina, wrote that the Sistine Madonna was her husband’s favorite painting, and Raphael his favorite painter. He took her to Dresden in 1867; it was a sort of honeymoon, but they were also fleeing his creditors in Russia. Upon their arrival at the gallery, he rushed her past rooms filled with paintings, straight to the Sistine Madonna. He visited the painting over and over again during their months in Dresden, sometimes staying for hours. On their last day there, he pulled up a chair and stood on it in order to study the Madonna’s face more closely. Her beauty, innocence, tenderness, and suffering moved him profoundly.

For his birthday in 1879, a mere 15 months before his death, Anna gave him a photographic print of the painting, cropped to exclude the putti and the saints. He received it with joy and thereafter stood before it often, lost in contemplation.

Sistine Madonna in Dostoevsky apartment
The Dostoevsky House-Museum in St. Petersburg has recreated his study, including the excerpt of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna above his sofa. Photo courtesy of The Tretyakov Gallery Magazine.

Dostoevsky was not alone among Russians (or Europeans generally) to be consumed with questions of truth, beauty, freedom, humanity, and divinity. But he probed them more deeply than most. For him these ideals finally united in the image and person of Jesus Christ — and, artistically, in the faces of mother and Son in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna.

Accordingly, he wrote in a letter, “There is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous, and more perfect than Christ; and … there cannot be. … If someone succeeded in proving to me that Christ was outside the truth, and if, indeed, the truth was outside Christ, I would sooner remain with Christ than with the truth.” (Selected Letters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, ed. Joseph Frank and David I Goldstein, tr. Andrew R. MacAndrew, p. 78.)

My favorite nineteenth-century novel is Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, his final attempt to address these weighty matters in fiction.

The Sistine Madonna in Moscow

In early 1945, near the end of World War II, the Sistine Madonna was removed from its gallery and taken for safekeeping to a climate-controlled tunnel in Switzerland, to protect it from the Allied bombing of Dresden. With many other masterpieces, it was eventually “liberated” by the Soviet army and taken to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. It briefly went on limited display there in 1946. In 1955 the Soviet regime decided to return the “rescued” treasures to Germany to foster Russian-German relations. Before leaving, they went on public exhibit in Moscow, and people flocked to see them.

One of those people was Vasily Grossman (1905-1964), a renowned Soviet writer and war correspondent. His penultimate novel, Life and Fate, is my favorite novel of the twentieth century. Ukrainian by birth, Grossman was a cultural but not religious Jew. His view is of such matters as truth, beauty, and freedom is therefore secular, but he probed them deeply nonetheless. He wrote an essay entitled “The Sistine Madonna” about the painting and his experience with it; for political reasons it was unpublishable during his lifetime.

Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman

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“It Is Immortal”

I recently read his essay in the original Russian. It inevitably loses some of its beauty and power in translation, but much of both remains. Here I quote an English translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Mukovnikova, from a 2010 collection entitled The Road.

Grossman writes:

“On the cold morning of May 30, 1955, I walked … past the lines of policemen controlling the huge crowds who wanted to see the work of the Old Masters. I entered the Pushkin Museum, climbed the stairs to the first floor, and went up to The Sistine Madonna.

“As soon as you set eyes on this painting, you immediately realize one thing, one thing above all: that it is immortal. …

“It came home to me that — for all the admiration I feel for Rembrandt, Beethoven, and Tolstoy — there was no work of art other than The Sistine Madonna, no work created by brush, chisel, or pen, no other work that had conquered my heart and mind, that would continue to live for as long as people continue to live. And should people die, then whatever other creatures might replace them on earth — wolves, rats, bears, or swallows — would also walk or wing their way to look at this Madonna.”

Grossman reflects on the many generations of people who had seen the painting before him, the many kinds of people, the “good and evil people.” He notes that, in the centuries since Raphael created his Sistine Madonna, “empires have risen and fallen, the American nation has come into being, the factories of Pittsburgh and Detroit have gone into production, revolutions have taken place, and the world’s social structure has changed.” He mentions superstition yielding to science; Galileo, Newton, and Einstein appearing; and great painters, composers and writers who “have enriched our souls and made our lives more beautiful.

“What I saw,” he writes after these reflections, “was a young mother holding a child in her arms.”

He writes of “a special grace,” “the mystery of maternal beauty,” and a mother’s whole soul revealed in her face. “Here … a spiritual force — motherhood — has been crystallized, transmuted into a meek and gentle Madonna.

“The Madonna’s beauty is closely tied to earthly life. It is a democratic, human, and humane beauty. It is a beauty that lives in every woman … a universal beauty. This Madonna is the soul and mirror of all human beings, and everyone who looks at her can see her humanity. She is the image of the maternal soul. That is why her beauty is forever interwoven and fused with the beauty that lies hidden, deep down, indestructible, wherever life is being born — be it in cellars, attics, pits, or palaces.”

He emphasizes that his lens is secular: “I believe that this Madonna is a purely aesthetic expression of life and humanity, without divine participation.” But what he calls the humanity in humanity is sufficiently exalted — and little different from what I, from my Christian perspective, would call the divinity in humanity.

He writes that the Child’s face is more adult than his mother’s, “sad and serious, focused both ahead and within. It is the kind of gaze that allows one to glimpse one’s fate.

“Both faces are calm and sad. Perhaps they can see Golgotha, and the dusty rocky road up the hill, and the hideous, short, heavy, rough-hewn cross lying on a shoulder that is now only little and that now feels only the warmth of the maternal breast. …

“Why is there no fear on the mother’s face? Why have her fingers not fastened around her son’s body so tightly that even death cannot untwine them? Why does she not wish to keep her son from his fate?

“Rather than hiding her child, she holds him forward to meet his fate.

“And the child is not hiding his face in his mother’s breast. Any moment now he will climb down from her arms and walk forward on his own little bare feet to meet his fate.

“How are we to explain this? How are we to understand it?”

What Is Human Survives

Bear in mind that Vasily Grossman witnessed and reported on some of the most horrific scenes of World War II. He was present at the battle of Stalingrad; he was among the first to write eyewitness reports in the grisly aftermath of the Holocaust at Treblinka, Babi Yar, and elsewhere. His own mother was one of tens of thousands of Jews Hitler’s forces slaughtered in Berdichev, Grossman’s birthplace in Ukraine.

As if all that were not enough, before, during, and after the war he saw the famines — mostly government-induced — that killed millions, especially in Ukraine. He saw friends and colleagues sent to Siberian camps or simply executed for political and artistic crimes, real and imagined, and thought the same fate was coming to him. At great personal risk, he pleaded, ultimately successfully, with the Soviet regime to release his wife. She had been arrested for being the wife of writer Boris Guber; the authorities apparently did not know the two had divorced. Guber had already been arrested on false charges, found guilty in a twenty-minute trial, and executed.

Seeing the Sistine Madonna causes Grossman to reflect on these horrors and more. Here and in his writing generally he explores mass suffering at the individual level, a feature others have remarked and I much admire in his writing generally.

He envisions Hitler, a painter of sorts, standing before Raphael’s masterpiece while it was still at Dresden. The Führer cannot meet the mother’s gaze or the Son’s, because they are human.

He imagines Stalin at the Moscow museum, gazing “for a long long time” into the holy faces. He wonders if the Georgian butcher recognizes the humanity in them, a humanity he must have seen somewhere before, in someone.

“But we, we people, recognized her, and we recognized her son too. She is us; their fate is our own fate; mother and son are what is human in man. …

“The painting speaks of the joy of being alive on earth. … Life alone is the miracle of freedom. …

“The power of life, the power of what is human in man, is very great, and even the mightiest and most perfect violence cannot enslave this power; it can only kill it. That is why the faces of mother and child are so calm: they are invincible. Life’s destruction, even in our iron age, is not its defeat.”

Again, I would say divine where Grossman says human, but the difference here seems almost immaterial.

“What is human in man goes to meet its fate. … But even when a man was crucified on a cross or tortured in a prison, what is human in him continued to exist. …

“The Madonna with the child in her arms represents what is human in man. This is why she is immortal.”

He concludes the essay with this thought:

“Seeing The Sistine Madonna go on her way, we preserve our faith that life and freedom are one, that there is nothing higher than what is human in man. This will live forever and triumph.”

Is There a Sistine Madonna for Our Time?

“What I saw,” Grossman wrote, “was a young mother holding a child in her arms.” For us, just now, that is a provocative image.

Prominent strains of contemporary feminist thought view a woman’s choice to pursue motherhood as a surrender to the patriarchy, a betrayal of her own body and her own womanhood, and of women at large. A few extreme but influential voices declare that the biological capacity to bear and rear children itself is oppression — something to be ignored, denied, obstructed, and medically reversed.

That women are and have been oppressed and repressed, both by men and by other women, I can scarcely deny. We all ought to deplore such abuse. But I have little sympathy for the extreme voices in a larger movement who would prefer to eliminate motherhood in the name of justice. On one hand, I’m well aware that such an extreme is too radical for most of the self-declared feminists I know; one doesn’t wish to dismiss an entire movement on the basis of its most extreme members. On the other hand, we are once again embroiled in a grisly but familiar debate over whether a woman’s putative right to kill her unborn child should be limited by law or not. And at least two large-state legislatures are considering whether a mother should have the legal right to have her baby killed for a period of days after its birth, if she wishes.

Meanwhile, on a certain lofty stratum of our society, where the air must be very thin, the word mother itself is subject to erasure. Woke culture, now including the official annual budget proposal by the President of the United States, replaces the word mother with “birthing person.”

It’s easy to infer what such folks think of Mother’s Day.

The Easter Thread

Let’s add one more thread here. As this past Easter approached, I read several essays by non-Christians who nonetheless confess the evident power of believing in that which they do not believe, notably the divinity, resurrection, and immortality of Jesus Christ.

Among my recent readings in this vein, Tim DeRoche’s essay “The Secular Case for Christianity” stands out as especially articulate and accessible. (Note that he uses the pre-social media meaning of the word meme, a bit of culture or behavior passed from one person or generation to another.)

He writes, “Lots of folks in the Meaning Crisis community do not believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on this day, Easter Sunday. But everyone is willing to listen across the chasm of faith and try to understand the root causes of our current discontent: the political rancor, the economic insecurity, the lack of trust in institutions, the mental health crisis, the collapse of the birth rate. 

“And most everyone, Christian and secular, is willing to contend with realities that our modern culture has chosen to ignore. Namely, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is the most successful meme in the history of the world. And the spread of that meme over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering. 

“Just as any serious Christian thinker must contend with the dark history of Christians persecuting others in the name of their faith, every serious secular thinker has to contend with the fact that these stories—from the Hebrew Bible on through the New Testament—seem to contain a tremendous store of wisdom about how to live a good life and build a healthy society.”

Later he writes:

“The English major in me wants to say that the Christian myth is true, but only on some sort of mysterious, metaphorical level. The skeptical part of my brain wants to say that the idea that Christ rose is complete nonsense—but that it’s also an incredibly powerful narrative that miraculously bubbled up from the process of human evolution and fills the God-shaped hole that resides in each human heart. And then there’s that part of me that asks: If this story is so damn powerful, couldn’t it just be true, in all the senses of that word?”

At Last We Weave

Here’s how these threads come together, at least in my mind, at least lately.

Dostoevsky’s mature Christian faith did not come easily. Mere days before his death, he famously wrote, “It is not as a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has passed through a great crucible of doubt.” (See Dostoevsky’s Полное собрание сочинений [Complete Collected Works] 27:86.) Grossman’s crucible was, if anything, hotter than Dostoevsky’s. He witnessed firsthand some of the greatest atrocities the human race devised for itself in the twentieth century. His faith in humanity barely survived, but it did survive. We might say it passed through “a great crucible of doubt.”

The Sistine Madonna‘s beauty and power moved my two favorite authors similarly, though one was (by then) devoutly Christian and the other quite secular. It entered and wove itself into their world views, expressing and affecting the deepest thoughts of their minds and hearts. One saw divinity, the other the pinnacle of humanity. In this way Raphael’s masterpiece united two different men from different times and somewhat opposing beliefs.

A decent sense of history precludes us from comparing our decade’s sufferings (so far) to the horrors of the twentieth century in particular. Yet our struggles and tempests are significant, and many of them have been — or may eventually show themselves to have been — self-inflicted.

Some thinkers, like Tim DeRoche, look at the complex turmoil in modern society and accept the merits of Christianity as a social influence even while they disbelieve its foundations. Believing Christians (not all Christians) more easily see Christ and his gospel as the antidote to much that ails us.

In other words, like Dostoevsky and Grossman viewing the Sistine Madonna, two opposing camps consider the same subject, from secular and religious perspectives, and embrace it. In this way a religion which both sides often portray as divisive now begins to unite people of dramatically different beliefs.

Now, a few weeks after Easter, in the United States and many other nations, comes Mother’s Day. It naturally inherits the conflict which presently attends both the word mother and the pursuit and popular veneration of motherhood. But if a secular Jew, Vasily Grossman, and a passionate Christian, Fyodor Dostoevsky, can both look at a painting of a mother and see in her the highest that is in us …

If some thoughtful people can look at modern society’s turmoil and accept the societal merits of Christianity even while they disbelieve that religion’s foundations …

Why can’t Mother’s Day similarly unite nearly all of us, religious and otherwise, liberal and conservative, urban and rural, red and blue? Can we not look into our mother’s faces (in real time or in memory, as in my case) and see some familiar, shared spark of what is highest in us?

We each have a mother; in one sense or another, some have two. Every mother who has borne a child has done so at some risk and sacrifice; every child is the beneficiary of that risk-taking and sacrifice. Most of our mothers — I admit relatively few exceptions — have spent the years beyond those initial pains modeling and cultivating in us what is best in humanity. Multitudes of mothers have done so splendidly, despite their own abundance of human flaws.

Many a father is wonderful too, and that role comes with its measure of sacrifice, but today I honor my mother — and yours. And perhaps, in the present context, my secular friends won’t mind too much my thanking God for my mother (and yours).

Happy Mother’s Day. Most of us can agree on that, right?

From the Author

David Rodeback

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