Friday, November 27, 2009

Spirits in the clouds at sunset

In what conceivable way could Raphael's Sistine Madonna, in Dresden's Gemäldegalerie, be considered a landscape painting?  In 1802, Philipp Otto Runge wrote 'is it not strange that we can feel our whole life clearly and distinctly when we see dense, heavy clouds running past the moon, now their edges gilded by the moon, now the moon swallowed entirely by their forms?  It sees then to us as if we could write the story of our life in images such as these.  And is it not true that since Buonarotti and Raphael there have been no genuine history painters?  Even Raphael's picture in the gallery tends toward landscape - of course we must understand something totally different by the term landscape'.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1512-13

This quotation is in Joseph Leo Koerner's Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape, which I described in my previous post.  Koerner explains that 'for Runge, the Sistine Madonna stands at the end of the tradition of Christian history painting and at the start of a new saeculum of art called landscape.  Like Romanticism, landscape can be posited only as project, having not yet found its true practitioner.  In Raphael's canvas, Runge discerns a fragment from this future landscape art.' 

For the Romantics, God was legible in nature and traditional religious imagery unnecessary - an approach that can be seen most clearly in the paintings of Friedrich. but when Runge was contemplating Raphael's painting, he thought that 'there has not yet been a landscape artist who gives his landscapes true meaning, who introduces into them allegories and intelligible, beautiful ideas.  Who does not see the spirits in the clouds at sunset?'

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