Raphael’s Madonna and Child Drawings between 1503 and 1507


The practice of drawing was a reflective and layered process through which the artist generated ideas, deepened his understanding of a given subject or sought to heighten an expressive model. The grace and fluency of Raphael’s drawings reveal his technological skills for drawings and their variety and inventiveness bear witness to his remarkably fertile imagination. This paper explores the formal qualities of Raphael’s Madonna and Child drawings between 1503 and 1507 to understand how did Raphael’s experiences in Perugino and Florentine worked as a foundation for his artistic innovations.


As a student of Perugino, the formal qualities of Raphael’s drawings were expected to be similar to Perugino’s. However, after the artist traveled to Florence in 1505, the change in style and composition in his paintings and drawings were significant. Some scholars contend that these Madonna and Child drawings were critical evidence to examine the progression of the formal qualities of Raphael’s artworks of the subjects. 


The analysis of the drawings primarily focused on the choice of medium, the use of techniques and their functions, with little analysis focusing on drawing the connections between Raphael’s inventions and how he achieved the innovations. Based on a scholarly analysis of historical and analytical literature, and close examination of the drawings, this paper asserts a more detailed understanding of Raphael’s images during his transitional moment between Perugino and Florence: Raphael’s innovations on Madonna and Child imagery was derived from the practice of overlay and repetition that he learned from the close studies of Leonardo da Vinci’s and Michelangelo Buonarroti’s drawings, as well as the implementation of the conventional symbolism and subjectivities within the composition.


I examine the formation of Madonna and Child figural compositions prematurely and selectively within several contextual frameworks: the literature works on the relationship between minds and hands; and the analytical works on the techniques of Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo’s drawings. 


Specific works examined include Studies for the Virgin and Child with a book, 1503-4 (fig. 1); The Virgin with the Pomegranate, 1504 (fig. 2); Studies of the Virgin and Child and of a boy, 1505 (fig. 3); Studies of the Virgin and Child, 1505-7 (fig. 4); Studies of the Virgin and Child with the infant St. John the Baptist, 1505 (fig. 5); and Sheet of studies of the Virgin and Child, 1507 (fig. 6).  



Drawings record the dialogue between the mind and the hand. It was regarded as the foundation of art by Cennino Cennini, a great an Italian artist and writer – the author of Il Libro dell'Arte. He urged the artists to draw from nature, from the paintings of the masters, or from the imagination. The grace and fluency of Raphael’s drawings reveal his technological skills for drawings and their variety and inventiveness bear witness to his remarkably fertile imagination. Raphael’s inspirations for disegno was visible in many aspects of his drawings, including the externalizing act of drawing as a part of the invention, and the composition of figurations through overlay that explores the possibilities. This paper explores the formal qualities of Raphael’s Madonna and Child drawings between 1503 and 1507 to understand how did Raphael’s experiences in Perugino and Florentine worked as a foundation for his artistic innovations. 


Perugino had the influence on the composition and style of Raphael’s Madonna and Child imageries before he arrived in Florence in 1504. Born in Urbino, Raphael was brought up in its extraordinary atmosphere of literary, philosophical, and artistic culture and cosmopolitan elegance. It is worth mentioning that his father, Giovanni Santi, was also an artist, who must also have had some aesthetic influences on the young Raphael. When Raphael was eleven, his father died. According to Vasari, he was brought to Perugino’s studio by his father, who had written that Perugino was “equal in age and endeavor” to Leonardo. Raphael seems to have absorbed the Perugino’s style, and he rapidly became the outstanding member of a busy bottega; by the age of sixteen, he was already influencing other artists. His Studies for the Virgin and Child with a book (fig. 1), executed with great rapidity, is a layered and exploratory drawing for the oil painting (fig. 7). Done in a pen and ink sketch, the drawing shows the Madonna and Child group clearly worked out, setting against a landscape. The group was enclosed within a rectangular frame that represents the limits of the panel that Raphael would have worked for the painting. On the right corner of the page is a slightly more detailed composition of the landscape on the right side of Mary. According to Ames-Lewis, “This [composition] conforms with Perugino’s study practice, in which slight variations were regularly made to standard formulae of composition and grouping, to avoid the need for new study leading to new formulations.”  This was supported by the architect Alberti. He believed that “concepts” and “models,” sketches and detailed drawings, were customary preparations for panting and for storie - figural compositions. The drawings were thought to represent what the final paintings would look like, and the similarities between the drawings and the finished paintings would have been obvious to be observed. 


Similarly, in fig 2, the figural group dominated the whole sketch page and the defined lines that depict how the bodies pose, where the hands connect, and what objects to include, were clear and determined. The use of cross-hatching and parallel-hatching techniques was distinct and the hatchings served as modeling of the bodies by creating light and shadow. The facial features of Madonna are very elaborate, including the details of the shadows under her chin, her mouth, and her nose. The headdress is devised clearly and the artist uses some cross-hatching to indicate the shadows near her neck. These are the features that suggest a complete quality of this sketch. What was different was that, in the Madonna and Child (fig. 1), the pen-strokes were shorter and more broken, comparing to the Virgin with the Pomegranate (fig. 2). The positions of the Virgin’s and Christ’s hands were unclear: comparing to the final painting (fig. 7), Raphael clearly reworked on the position of their hands and their relations to each other’s to achieve a clearer and more naturalistic effect of their gestures. In addition, the shadows created by parallel-hatching in figure 1 does not fully suggest how the light was cast onto the bodies. 


The similar composition between figure 1 and 2 shows the standardization of the grouping of Raphael’s Virgin and Child setting against a landscape behind them. Same degrees of tilting of Mary’s head, looking downward towards Christ and holding the Book of Hours. According to Chapman, the shadows cast from the tree indicates which chapter the figures are reading. In the Madonna and Child,1502-3 painting, the figures are reading is about Christ’s crucifixion. This understanding can only be determined through the colored finish painting by looking at where does the shadow of figures and the trees are cast onto; since the direction of light in the drawings is less clear than the finished paintings. 


Raphael’s earliest drawings of the Madonna and Child were probably directly associated with the preparation of paintings without showing too much of his innovation. His drawings after his arrival in Florence presented a different agenda. In the mid-sixteenth century, Vasari described sketches as “the first set of drawings that are made to find the poses and the first composition” from which drawings “in good form” will later be made. This speaks to the idea of composing the figures on the drawings to achieve the “good form,” which was different from Raphael’s earlier practice of setting the figuration on paper for the final drawings. In the earlier drawings, the compositions were derived from the imagination, as the artists were mostly certain about the details of the group; while in the later drawings, the compositions were worked out on the paper and the artist used the paper as a medium during imagination. Thus, when we analyzing the drawings after 1504, often we would find repeating figurations in similar but different compositions that the artist was working on at the same time or sketched down quickly at the same time. 


Through deriving different compositions for the same subject groups on the paper, the artist was able to explore and invent different postures and poses of the figures. The Studies of the Virgin and Child and of a boy, 1505 (fig. 3) is one of the examples of Raphael’s Madonna and Child subject group created around the time he first arrived at Florence. After Raphael arrived at Florence in 1504, his drawing changed significantly. One of which is he is more active and dynamic in the use of space. In the Studies of the Virgin and Child and of a boy, 1505 (fig. 3), the artist depicted four group of figures – two major Madonna and Child groups enclosed by frames around them; one light sketch of Madonna and Child group on the right corner; and a light baby Christ figure on the left of the light group sketch. When Raphael was working on the light sketches, he turned the paper vertically and when he was working on the two major groups, he held the paper horizontally. It is the way of using paper only existed after his visit to Florence. 


Similarly, in Raphael’s Studies of the Virgin and Child with the infant St. John the Baptist, 1505, he turned the paper into different directions when working out the figural composition. As Ames-Lewis suggested, Raphael fully explored the possible compositions while utilizing every inch of the page. In this page, Raphael folded the paper in the middle and use the fold line as the border for different studies on the paper. Starting from the front side, he worked on possible compositions of Madonna and Child and when he got to the other side, the idea had already formed in favor of a kneeling Mary. On the verso, he worked in more details on the four Madonna and Child groups, to explore the poses of the figures and where the Christ should be in the composition. By turning the paper and sketching the drawings down freely and quickly, the artist was able to record his thoughts and build more details and complexity when drawing. 


Raphael’s drawings reveal processes of thinking, improvising, observing, recalling from memory and revising. As we identified above, this change was largely due to Raphael’s encounter with Michelangelo and Leonardo in Florence. Starting from Leonardo, he demonstrated the potential of drawing as a form of research and as a medium for the generation of new ideas. Michelangelo took on this idea and practiced more experiments in his studies. In Michelangelo’s Studies of an Infant, 1504-1505 (fig. 8), he also turned the paper to multiple directions to explore the different poses of the infants. However, what’s different between Michelangelo’s exploration of figurations and Leonardo’s was the use of repetition. In Michelangelo’s drawings, he repeated the same subject in distinctive manners – each exploration of the poses was in distance with another. Thus, each possibility was clear and distinct on its own. However, in Leonardo’s drawings, the exploration of possibilities was performed at the same place on the paper. The Studies for the Madonna and Child with Sts. Anne and John the Baptist, 1503 (fig. 9) is a typical example of how Leonardo tested out the different compositions repeatedly in the same place and eventually this figural group contains so many iterations of the idea, one on top of the other, that it has become illegible. Blank areas remain on the page, suggesting that Leonardo chose to continue drawing on the same spot because the morass of the lines created a fertile ground for the continued development of his ideas. When he needed to extract a single contour from this entangled web of lines, he used a stylus to carve it out, tracing the mark he made on the verso. 


It is possible that Raphael saw Leonardo’s and Michelangelo’s similar drawings like these when he first arrived at Florence; then, internalized the how these two artists used the space of the page while thinking through the compositions; and started the similar practices himself. In the Sheet of studies of the Virgin and Child, 1507 (fig. 6), Raphael arranged multiple imagined variations across a sheet - no single solution was given greater emphasis than any other, either through line weight or differentiation of materials, just like Michelangelo’s Studies of an Infant. At the same time, there are evidence of the use of overlay in the figures, too. The turning of Madonna’s head and the change of position of her right arm on the central right group almost created an animated effect; the change of the Christ Child’s poses on the lower right group and the shifting of Virgin’s left arm also suggested the Raphael’s externalized thinking process as he was drawing out the compositions on the paper. 


This model of the practice of drawing was discussed by Gian Paolo Lomazzo in his famous writings, Trattato dell’arte della pittura, scoltura, et architectura, in which he presented an insightful view of the sequential relationship between drawing and invention – first the drawing is made, and then other ideas emerge from what is already on the sheet. Although they are “born in the fantasia,” their point of origin is in the act of drawing.  In Raphael’s Studies of the Virgin and Child, 1505-7 (fig. 4), he started drawing down his thoughts in broken lines, proving that the artist was thinking and inventing the composition through sketching as opposed to noting down an existing idea through drawing. This idea was inspired by Leonardo, as in his writing, he used the analogy of music composers and painters and he stated that the artists need to put the thoughts onto the paper and derived more compositions and possibilities from what was on the paper. While Cennini suggests a division between the fantasia and operations of the hand, Michelangelo’s, Leonardo’s and Raphael’s drawings dissolve this division. 


Leonardo typically employed the methods of overlaying, and the laying out of multiple variations, to explore a range of gestures and poses for subjects involving two or more figures. Although Michelangelo often adopted similar formal strategies, his studies almost exclusively concerned the poses of single figures, isolated from each other, and their surroundings and were free of the narrative meaning. Raphael’s practice in Madonna and Child is more or less like the combination of these two artists. He worked on the grouping of the compositions both as individual figures and as subjects involving multiple figural groups, and he used both overlay and repetition to help him achieve the ideal compositions for the Madonna and Child group. 


Through reading the drawings, we can capture the process of figural creation and the dialogue between the mind and the hand. In his treatise, De’ very precetti della pittura, Armenini regards the notion of invention as a process of “search and discover, one that requires repetition, multiple drafts, corrections, and additions.” He recommends that “[the] painter should have sketches, and look at them closely, and change them, according to the need that he sees, and sometimes it is necessary that he makes more sketches, that are different from the first.” He concluded that the repetitive similar compositions were not only evidence for the process of thinking, but also serve as records that the artists can trace back to when needed. The models that Raphael used in depicting the Christ Child were derived from antique models, opposing to the earlier version before he arrived at Florence, the figures were normally modeled after Perugino, such as the Madonna and Child painting,1500 (fig. 10).  


It is worth mentioning that, when observing the early drawings (fig 1 and 2), in comparison with the later drawings (fig. 5 and 6). The conventional symbolism is missing in the later practices. In figure 1 and 2, Raphael contained the book of hour or Bible, which represents the annunciation narrative; and the fruit, which represents the passion of Christ. The inclusion of symbolism in Madonna and Child paintings was typical in drawings in Perugino’s artworks. However, as Raphael moved to Florence, his focus was mainly on the figuration. This was influenced by Leonardo, who was more interested in the science and the balance between human and nature; and by Michelangelo, who was focused on the humanism and depiction of human bodies from antiquity. 


Raphael’s own practice was to learn from those around him, to analyze technical and stylistic innovations and to digest those elements that were useful to his own aims and visual vocabulary. After his arrival at Florence, Raphael consistently expanded his visual vocabulary and stylistic means so that his own output was constantly evolving. Through the act of overlaying, Raphael was able to address a variety of compositions before deciding the most suitable form for the final paintings; through the use of paper space, he was able to construct ideas to think through the details of figuration; and through repetition of similar groups, he was able to create harmony to the pictorial space. Overall, these elements enabled him to engage with different Christian iconographies to achieve the clarity in conveying messages to their viewers. Thanks to the constant designs and inventions on their compositions, many of them took part in the finished projects that helped Raphael gained his fame rapidly in Florence. 




Figure 1: Raphael, Madonna, and Child. 1503. Pen and ink. 4.49 in *5.12 in. Ashmolean Museum.

Figure 2: Raphael, The Virgin with the Pomegranate, 1504, Black chalk with compass indentation for the halo, 41.2 * 29.4 cm. Vienna, Albertina. 

Figure 3: Raphael, Studies of the Virgin and Child and of a boy, 1505, Pen and brown ink, 21.2 * 26.7 cm. Vienna, Albertina

Figure 4: Raphael, Studies of the Virgin and Child, 1505-7, Pen and brown ink on paper patchily tinged (with red chalk?) to give a pinkish hue; some unrelated black chalk doodles, 19.8 * 15.4 cm. Christ Church, Oxford

(Verso of figure 4) Raphael, Study of the Virgin and Child. Pen and brown ink, on paper patchily tinged (with red chalk?) to give a pinkish hue; red chalk (the heads). 

Figure 5: Raphael, Studies of the Virgin and Child with the infant St. John the Baptist, 1505, Pen and brown ink over blink stylus, 24.6 * 36.4 cm. Vienna, Albertian.  

(verso of figure 5) Raphael, Studies for the Madonna of the Meadow. Pen and ink, over stylus underdrawing. 245* 362 mm.  Vienna, Albertian

Figure 6: Sheet of studies of the Virgin and Child, 1507

Figure 7: Raphael, Madonna and Child, c. 1502-3. Oil on panel, 55.2*40 cm. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena. 

Figure 8: Michelangelo, The Studies of an Infant, 1504-1505, pen and ink. British Museum, London.

Figure 9: Leonardo, Studies for the Madonna and Child with Sts. Anne and John the Baptist. 1503. London, The British Museum

Figure 10: Pietro Perugino, Madonna and Child, 1500. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C




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artJenny Maart, Raphael, Italian, painting