Thursday, April 8, 2010

Raphael at MAM


Two days ago, 6 April, was not merely the day of my Confirmation in 1986. More importantly for the world, on that day, in 1520, the world lost the great Italian painter Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, the artist who is known and loved by us as simply Raphael. Interestingly, he may also have been born on that day, though the date of his birth is debatable. What we do know is that the year 1483 saw the birth of at least two great geniuses, Martin Luther and Raphael. Approximate as we find ourselves this holy Paschal Octave, then, to the important Raphael date of the 6th of April, it is all the more fitting to speak of the Milwaukee Art Museum's (MAM) latest exhibit. From 27 March until 6 June, one of Raphael's masterpieces, The Woman with the Veil (La Donna Velata), will be on exhibit at MAM, on loan from the Medici collection at the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy.

It is a rare privilege for a museum to be afforded such an opportunity to exhibit a Raphael in its halls. And I hope to seize every chance I can get to see it. Once is not enough for me. On the day of the opening I went with my friend, Father Gary Schultz, to see it. And tomorrow morning after Mass I will take my lovely young niece, Alexandra, and we will meet another of my lovely young nieces, Vera. If everything is coordinated, and nothing unexpected happens, the three of us will meet under the wings of the Calatrava atrium at MAM, and pay a visit to The Woman with the Veil.

There is a great deal to be said in appreciation for the art produced by today's artists, yet no real and substantial appreciation for art today is possible without learning to experience and love the Renaissance masters, like Raphael. The painting compels silent admiration. The face, the eyes, the sleeve, the color. It is a brilliant depiction of womanly beauty. The sitter for this painting, incidentally, is the same one who sat for another of Raphael's masterworks, La Fornarina, namely, Margherita Luti, whom Raphael called simply the Baker's daughter. His love for her was intense, and these portraits were very personal to him.

In Raphael's work we have a lesson in harmony and the beauty of reason. For he accomplishes that rarest of qualities, ie., he gives us the truly human. His art includes not only these more personal projects, but also altarpieces, Madonnas, Bible scenes, and the famous portrait of Pope Julius II. He was also an architect, and for a time was the official architect of Saint Peter's in Rome.

Artists, students of art, and Christian pilgrims of every description do well to sit at this master's feet. We do so not solely but chiefly by letting great works of art, such as La Donna Velata, move us, and teach us about beauty.

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