Skip to main content

Tickled pink

Karen Hosack explores the significance of an early Raphael, saved for the nation

This touching painting shows a mother tenderly looking at her baby son. As he wriggles about on the cushion on her lap, she steadies him with her arm.

If we discount the mother's period clothes it could easily be a picture of any young woman, from any time, enjoying a few moments with her baby.

However, the family portrayed here can be identified by the delicate golden haloes around each of their heads. This painting is a small Christian devotional piece showing the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, Jesus.

"The Madonna of the Pinks" would have been used for prayer, perhaps while held in the hand by the original owner. The two are seated in a bed chamber. Behind Mary's head we see the looped bed-curtain. From one side, sun from the window lights them strongly; this enables the artist to use highlights and shadows to give the figures more form. The painting gains its name from the bunch of flowers held in Mary's hand. These are small flowers that are related to carnations. As with many flowers, pinks have an accepted cultural meaning. They are symbols of marriage; this painting presents the Virgin as the Bride of Christ, as well as a mother.

Raphael painted this panel early in his career, probably around 1506-7, before moving from Florence to Rome where he gained his greatest fame. He was highly influenced by the works of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Arriving in Florence in 1504, at the age of 21, he would have encountered Michelangelo's newly erected sculpture of David outside the town hall. He also would have seen Leonardo's "Benois Madonna" (now in the Hermitage, St Petersburg), from which the composition of "The Madonna of the Pinks" is taken.

Both Michelangelo and Leonardo tried to capture what it is like to be human in the shape of the figure: expressing emotion through the body as well as the face. This humanistic approach to painting and sculpture was new at the time. Traditionally, Western European artists tended to draw on the hieratic images of Byzantine art, depicting rather stiffly posed figures.

Renaissance painters changed all this, especially in their representations of personal relationship, here between mother and child.

In "The Madonna of the Pinks" Raphael paints Mary and Jesus as real people with real feelings. "While we may term other works paintings, those of Raphael are living things; the flesh palpitates, the breath comes and goes, every organ lives, life pulsates everywhere," wrote contemporary Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists.

In the 19th century the painting was in the prestigious Camuccini collection in Rome. It was acquired in 1853 by the 4th Duke of Northumberland (1793-1865). The painting stayed in the family collection and was displayed at Alnwick Castle until 1992, after which it was on loan to the National Gallery. From the mid-19th century onwards, there were some doubts about the painting's authenticity until Dr Nicholas Penny (then Clore curator of Italian Renaissance paintings at the National Gallery) saw the painting, and with the Duke's permission, carried out some scientific investigations. Infrared reflectography revealed underdrawing entirely characteristic of Raphael and its authenticity was affirmed by other leading Raphael scholars. This attribution was verified at a symposium of the world's leading Raphael scholars at the National Gallery in October 2002.

With renewed interest in the painting, the present Duke decided to sell the picture to the Getty Museum in the United States for pound;34.88 million.

In response, an appeal was launched by the National Gallery to raise money to secure "The Madonna of the Pinks" for the British people. This February, the National Gallery and the Duke of Northumberland announced that the painting would remain in the United Kingdom. The painting was bought for pound;22 million. This purchase was made possible by the support of the Raphael Appeal and a grant of pound;11.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund. "The Madonna of the Pinks" is now added to the nation's permanent collection, and is one of the greatest examples of Western European painting. It will enhance the depth of the Gallery's group of eight paintings marking different moments in Raphael's early career.

To celebrate the new acquisition, the National Gallery is planning a tour of the painting to four venues across the country. It will be shown alongside two National Gallery travelling companions that also depict the Madonna and Child. Together, the pictures will show the evolution of this subject during 100 years of the Italian Renaissance. The earliest will be Domenico Ghirlandaio's traditional "Virgin and Child" (1480s), and the latest, Titian's freely painted "Madonna and Child" (1565-70). The great achievement of the Renaissance lay in emphasising the humanity of familiar subjects such as the Virgin and Child. Education and community programmes will accompany the tour.

From October 20 until January 16 next year, "The Madonna of the Pinks" will return to the National Gallery for the first major exhibition of Raphael paintings and drawings to be held in Britain. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome will explore the meaning and historical context of Raphael's works, his techniques and how these developed.

A special private viewing for teachers will be held on Friday, December 3, 6.30-8.30pm. For a free invitation for yourself and one guest, tel: 020 7747 5891.


Raphael was born in Urbino and his early artistic influences came from his father, who was a painter and poet, although he was left an orphan at the age of 11. He learned his craft with Perugino, one of Italy's leading 15th-century painters. In 1508, a commission from Pope Julius II to decorate the Papal Apartments dramatically enhanced Raphael's career.

Prints of his designs were disseminated across the country, establishing his reputation alongside Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. However, illness struck him down at the height of his fame and he died on his 37th birthday.


Art numeracy

Plot the size of Raphael's painting

(29 x 23 cm) on squared paper. Ask pupils to bring in family photographs and scale these up to the size of "The Madonna of the Pinks". Discuss the small scale of the images and how this might change the way we feel about them.

Art science

Study Raphael's use of light and shade. You may find the image of "The Madonna of the Pinks" on the National Gallery website useful as you can zoom in on it. Experiment with tonal sketches and painting techniques of a subject sitting near a strong light source, such as a window.

Artliteracy citizenship

Find out about the symbolism of pinks and other flowers.

Art history

Using the National Gallery website search for the other Raphael paintings in the collection. Put them in chronological order and use them to follow his career.


The theme of "mother and child" is familiar in the visual arts. Compare examples from before and after Raphael, including the work of sculptors such as Henry Moore and Ron Mueck.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you