Full of grace: Raphael’s silverpoint Madonnas

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A new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington offers the opportunity to appreciate some of the greatest artists of the western Christian tradition working in a medium that was esteemed highly in the Renaissance but later fell out of use.

"Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns" takes visitors from the 14th to the 20th century in a selection of 100 drawings on paper, parchment and even wood. It opened May 3 and will continue until July 26. The museum is open daily and free to the public. Names like Leonardo da Vinci, Durer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Eyck and Van der Weyden are among the masters whose work is on loan to Washington for this occasion.

Lead is the only metal soft enough to make lines in ordinary paper; all other metals will leave a mark only if the support is prepared in advance with a slightly abrasive coating. A stylus made of silver (usually) or another metal is then drawn over the surface, and tiny flecks of the metal are pulled off to form a delicate gray line.

Depending on the support, metalpoint drawing is very difficult to erase and requires great precision on the part of the artist - a challenge like the sonnet form to a poet. In a video at the exhibit (also available online), visitors can see how much of the process involved the careful preparation of the ground, often requiring several layers brushed onto the paper by hand.

The 'Dear Madonnas'

Among many other things, this exhibit in the ground floor exhibition space, together with the museum's permanent collection upstairs on the main floor, highlights how the Italian painter Raphael shaped our image of the Virgin and Child.

Raphael (1483-1520) painted some 30 versions of this theme for private devotions, and the range of his interpretations provided a benchmark for future artists - indeed, one of the loveliest of the 19th century drawings in the show, British painter William Dyce's "Virgin and Child," draws its inspiration from Raphael models.

Poet Robert Browning, describing Raphael's poetry, said that the artist "made a century of sonnets, /Made and wrote them in a certain volume/dinted with the silver-pointed pencil/Else he only used to draw the dear Madonnas." Raphael's sketches give the impression that he either drew them fresh from life or from astonishingly vivid memory. He then transformed them into more idealized devotional paintings of which the National Gallery owns three examples, two of them currently on view.

"Between 1504 and 1508, the Madonna and Child became the vessel into which most of Raphael's creative thought was poured," wrote the scholar John Pope-Hennessy.

From around 1502, when still a teenager, Raphael drew the delicate "Head of the Virgin" in silverpoint after first incising the outlines with a "blind stylus" on prepared paper. He translated the study into his "Madonna and Child with a Book" now in the Norton Simon Museum in California. In the painting, the book carries an inscription introducing the ninth hour (Nones) of the Canonical Offices, recited daily by monks. The Nones recalls Christ's Crucifixion and Death, and thus the painting is not just a beautiful image but also a profoundly spiritual meditation piece.

Around 1509, at the height of his grand mural paintings in the papal apartments in the Vatican, Raphael drew the "Heads of the Virgin and Child," another silverpoint on prepared pink paper. The drawing focuses purely on the heads of the two figures, imbued with much greater three-dimensionality than the earlier Madonna.

In this drawing Raphael combines a poignant premonition of her Child's future sacrifice in the face of the Virgin, with the expression of momentary joy on the face of her divine Son. It is not connected to any known painting, but similar expressions, perfectly uniting the natural with the divine, appear again on the faces of the two figures in the National Gallery's "Niccolini-Cowper Madonna" upstairs. As in the drawing, the figures nearly fill the frame, helping the viewer to concentrate on the tender maternal relationship between them.

The exhibit is particularly rich in works from the Northern European Renaissance, where use of metalpoint seems to have begun earlier and lasted longer than in Italy, where artists abandoned it after Raphael died in 1520. Four drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, the only known portrait drawing by Rogier van der Weyden, tiny landscapes by Rembrandt, an amazing set of sketches and portraits by Albrecht Durer, and a page from the notebook of 16th century art historian Vasari where he assembled nine early Florentine drawings - these are just some of the highlights of an experience that is not to be missed.

Hamerman, who teaches art and catechesis at Christendom Graduate School in Alexandria, can be reached at norahamerman@aol.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015