The Madonna of the Pinks


The Madonna of the Pinks


A work of especial value because it puts us into contact with a very early stage of our psychological life  is Raphael’s The Madonna Of The Pinks. Here we have a picture dealing with a slightly later stage of symbiosis, just as it is coming into the oedipal phase.   The child here is not part of his mother as is the child in the Henry Moore St Matthew’s Madonna.  Here he is about to become a quite separate individual.  It is a surprisingly small picture. To paint it Raphael  borrowed more directly from Leonardo than in any other of his paintings, in this case Leonardo’s The Benois Madonna.  Leonardo’s picture was highly revolutionary.  His figures have none of the stiffness of allegory as the Medieval renderings of mother and child had done.  It is a painting full of joy and tenderness.  Yet even so it is not a picture from the material world.  It is saturated in Leonardo’s darkness.  Mother and child are both crowned with glowing haloes.  The child’s head is far too big to be realistic.  He is not sitting on his mother’s lap, if you look closely,  but on air.  Above all there is no psychological link between mother and child.  The child is absorbed in his plaything.  His mother is absorbed in the child.   It was this model that Raphael took and turned into one of the very greatest paintings of the canon.  Raphael brings Leonardo out of an allegorical penumbra into the world of time and flesh.  Outside the window, in Raphael’s painting, there is a real scene with buildings and grass and sky.  With commanding economy Raphael uses exteriority to emphasize the interiority that is the true subject of the painting. Whereas Leonardo’s picture is essentially dark, Raphael has bathed his in sweet fresh light.  His baby is a real infant sitting securely on his mother’s capacious lap.  You can feel his weight on the cushion.  The bedclothes and the virgin’s dress are crumpled and untidy.  The virgin has a most inconspicuous halo that does nothing for her hair.  Wisps of it escape from beneath the scrap of muslin that has been pressed into service as an alice band.


There are two great further changes, far beyond these physical details, that Raphael made to Leonardo’s painting.  One was that Leonardo’s had nothing to do with sex.  Raphael’s is saturated in it.  The virgin has full and, one guesses, comely bosoms.  In a huge change the child has opened his legs to reveal a most lusty and already fully formed penis.   If you follow the virgin’s downward cast eyes it is the penis that is the focus of her attention.  The second great change that Raphael made to Leonardo’s picture was his re-working of the gaze.  In Leonardo’s painting the child looks at his plaything and the virgin looks at the child.  But Raphael’s picture is much more internalized. Here the child’s gaze travels through the pinks and back to the virgin.  Leonardo’s child is thinking about his plaything.  Raphael’s is thinking about his mother.  Oedipal anxiety arises, said Kohut, when the infant has no joyful memories of his mother’s face lighting up in joyful recognition of her child. What Raphael is painting here is just that joyful recognition, and not only that but the transformation of the infant into a person and a subject through the medium of his mother’s gaze. You can see how psychologically secure he already is.  It is, in fact, Bollas’s maternal transformation.  There is, however,  yet another gazer in the painting.  Not only mother and child are caught up in their mutual gazing but the eyes of the viewer too are drawn to the pinks and thus inserted into the flowing current of mutual recognition.  Like all really great art the painting not only fascinates and entertains us but actually does something extremely useful for us.  The pinks are Winnicott’s transitional  objects.  They are saturated in the virgin’s love.  But they  are objects too that have been introduced  into this universe of privacy from the outside world.  Because they belong to both worlds they are, as Winnicott says, bridges from one world to another.  Because they are saturated in his internal world the infant can use them to enter the external world.  The infant is already striding out towards it and we see it plainly only just outside the window.   But they are also bridges from the world, from the external world of ends back to the internal world of beginnings.  And we ourselves are not outside the window.  Through the pinks Raphael brings us out of the world right into the bedroom and right inside the relationship of the virgin mother to her divine child.  The picture not only tells us about symbiotic origins. It helps to heal us by putting us into contact with our own.


There is one other aspect of the picture that Raphael painted many many times in his many Madonnas and Childs, but which here reaches its most delicate and its finest and fullest pitch of perfection.  It is the virgin’s restraining hand.  According to Susie Orbach, when the child begins to become independent his mother starts to restrain his desire in order to ensure his safety. It is in relation to this restraining other that the child discovers himself, but for ever afterwards there will be a resentment against this oppressive nay-saying setter of boundaries, the beginning, according to Susie Orbach, of mens’ hatred and fear of women.  But in Raphael’s paintings this restraint is so loving and so gentle it becomes less and less possible as he goes on, and as his art developed and his understanding of human beings deepened, that you could even begin to fear and resent the restraining hand.  What we see in The Madonna Of The Pinks  is a restraining hand so utterly tender and so delicate and gentle it is almost as if it is not the mother restraining the child but the child restraining the mother.  The virgin’s hand in no way grasps or claims the child for herself, but gently gives him the support which he now almost doesn’t need. . What Raphael has painted for us is a mother wholly without selfish desire, quite without intention  to devour the love of her child  and keep his sexual being for herself.  It is Sons And Lovers  in reverse.  How does it come about then that Raphael’s virgins are so without that self-seeking desire to devour the sexuality of their male child which, as we realize now that we’ve read Lawrence, has wrought such havoc among men.?   The answer is simple. They had no need to because they were already loved so much by Raphael.  You begin to see what Vasari meant when he said Raphael was a great lover of women.  Women only turn to their male children for love if their men, as they so often indeed haven’t, haven’t given it to them already.


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