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Pope Allows Raphael’s Madonna to Leave Vatican, Visit Sister

"The Sistine Madonna" by Raphael. The painting, most famous for the two cherubs at the bottom, has been reunited with its sister, "The Madonna of Foligno," for an exhibition of Madonnas. Source: Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden via Bloomberg

It took an act of papal intervention for Raphael’s “Madonna of Foligno” to leave the Vatican and travel to Dresden, where she is on show alongside her sister, the “Sistine Madonna,” for the first time.

Pope Benedict XVI is paying an official visit to Germany, his native country, from Sept. 22 to 25. To coincide with his stay -- which includes meetings with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her former boss, Helmut Kohl -- he wanted a “unique cultural event,” according to Germany’s ambassador to the Holy See, Walter Juergen Schmid.

Though the Madonna is one of the artworks that, on principle, never leaves the Vatican Pinacoteca, the pope allowed an exception to be made. Dresden’s Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, housed in the sandstone grandeur of the Baroque Zwinger palace, is using the occasion to show the Raphaels with Madonnas by Albrecht Duerer, Lucas Cranach and Matthias Gruenewald among others.

The “Sistine Madonna,” which turns 500 next year, is Dresden’s best-known painting and arguably one of the most famous paintings in the world. Arguably, because it’s not the Madonna herself -- beautiful though she is -- who features on myriad mouse mats, umbrellas, cups, Christmas cards, fridge magnets, labels of sparkling wine and serviettes.

It’s the two impossibly cute cherubs resting on a ledge at the bottom, looking up at her with bored expressions on their angelic faces, who get all the attention.

Waiting for Jesus

They almost look like an ironic footnote, commenting on the action above them. Raphael’s purpose -- painting them in waiting poses -- was probably to emphasize the great distance Mary had to travel with Jesus to arrive among mankind from the distant heavens.

It was the Foligno Madonna who first grabbed the fancy of the Saxon elector and Polish king, August III. In 1750, his court sent an agent to the Umbrian town of Foligno to buy the painting. He returned empty-handed. Four years later, August acquired the Sistine Madonna.

It took a while for her popularity to catch on: Not until about 1800 was the painting discovered by a wider public. Guess which bit was first copied back then? Yes, those two cherubs, who went on to conquer the world.

Raphael painted the two Madonnas at around the same time -- between 1511 and 1513 -- and it is likely they hung alongside each other in his studio. This is their first reunion since.

Family Resemblance

There can be no doubt they are related, though the Sistine Madonna is tinged brown by an aging lacquer, while the Foligno Madonna, which has been restored recently, has lush reds and blues that shine from the canvas.

Like the Sistine Madonna, Mary rests on a cloud, yet here she is lit from behind by the sun. The cloud appears solid enough to support her and Jesus, who seems to be struggling to get down from her lap, as toddlers do.

Raphael’s rough-looking John the Baptist sports a bearskin and wild hair, though his beard is neatly trimmed. He points to the Madonna in a gesture that inspired Leonardo da Vinci to paint John in a similar pose.

On the right is the elderly Sigismondo dei Conti, who commissioned the painting. A secretary to the pope, his head is stroked protectively by St. Jerome, a previous holder of the same post. An angel in the middle holds up an empty plaque that probably signifies the promise of the afterlife.

Orange Dash

A dash of bright orange light on the central townscape remains a mystery -- it is not clear whether it represents a fateful moment in the life of dei Conti, or whether the town is supposed to be Bethlehem, and the light the guiding star.

Curiously, the picture was saved through being stolen. Napoleon’s troops looted it from Foligno in 1797 and took it to Paris, where restorers undertook an urgent repair job, transferring the Madonna from wood to canvas.

Without that theft, she may well have disintegrated in an obscure Italian church, instead of becoming a jewel in the Vatican’s crown.

“Heavenly Splendour,” as the Madonna exhibition is called, is on show through Jan. 8, 2012. Next year, Dresden plans an exhibition about the Sistine Madonna to coincide with the painting’s 500th birthday.

Visitors shouldn’t miss the opportunity to visit another small yet wonderful show in the Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister: Bernardo Bellotto’s newly restored “View of Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe Beneath the August Bridge” is displayed alongside other views of the city by the artist.

(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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