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Art for Meditation - December 2020

Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), Canigiani Holy Family, 1505-06, oil on poplar wood, 131 cm x 107 cm, Munich, Germany, Alte Pinakothek

27 December, Feast of the Holy Family.

As for many other works by Raphael, we know the history of this painting too. Painted for Domenico, a prominent member of the noble and rich Canigiani family, perhaps in view of his marriage to Lucrezia Frescobaldi in 1507, the work was noticed by Vasari in the Canigiani heirs' house.

Later the painting passed from the Canigiani family to the Medicis, their historical allies and lords of Florence. The oil remained in the Florentine collections until 1691, when Anna Maria Luisa married Giovanni Carlo Guglielmo I Prince of the Palatinate. The father of the bride, Grand Duke Cosimo III, included the beautiful, famous work by Raphael in his daughter's dowry. The painting then reached the important city of Düsseldorf, in Germany, where it remained until 1801, when, for fear of Napoleon's raids, it was transferred definitively to its present location.

One thing that we note immediately is that the work is signed in capital letters, RAPHAEL URBINAS, on the hem of the Virgin’s blouse; this tells us both the great fame that already surrounded the young painter from Urbino (he was only 22-23 years old!) and the degree of awareness he had of his own value.

Let us now observe the painting. What immediately strikes us is the pyramidal structure created by the figures in the painting: St. Joseph is at the vertex, whereas the position of the two women (Mary on the right and her cousin Elizabeth on the left) is specular, forming the sides and base of the ideal triangle. The two children are playing just in the centre, with little John handing Jesus a ribbon on which we can read, in Latin, his exclamation narrated in the first chapter of John's Gospel, repeated twice in two days: “Behold the lamb of God...” (John 1:29 and 1:36).

The painting is endowed with a natural balance that testifies to the great technical mastery that the young painter has already developed. The landscape strikes us by the light, the calmness, the richness of the greenery, the precision of the contours of the buildings in the background and the grass and flowers in the foreground. The figures are rich with enchanting details: the transparency of the Madonna's veil, the fineness of the weft of the golden edge of her blue mantle, the lightness of the sparse curls of little John, the elegance of the folds of Mary's red dress, created by the small belt at her waist. We are attracted by the various gazes of the characters: Joseph is looking at Elizabeth, who is looking at him in return; Jesus’ eyes are directed at his little cousin John; Mary is looking over the two children, after having closed (while using her finger as a bookmark!) the book with which she was praying.

Let us now return to the beginning, that is, to the gift that Domenico Canigiani wanted for his wedding. The magnificent painting would certainly have a place of honour in their beautiful house in Florence, a sign of their desire to ask the Lord's blessing on the family that was taking its first steps after the marriage to Lucrezia.

We ask the Holy Family of Nazareth to watch over us and our families, with the words that Pope Francis expressed on the eve of the synod dedicated to the family, on 29 December 2013.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love,
to you we turn with trust.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.

Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.


Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.


(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)


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