The Holy Family
Oil on canvas
45 1/2 x 34 3/8 inches (1186 x 907 mm)
Purchased by J. Pierpont Morgan
The Morgan's painting reproduces a famous composition by Raphael (1483–1520), which was probably commissioned by Pope Julius II (reigned 1503–13) and given to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. Long considered lost, Raphael's original painting, also known as the Madonna of Loreto, likely is the one now in the Musée Condé, Chantilly. One of the numerous copies, now in Nijni Taghil, bears the date 1509, and thus possibly supplies a terminus ante quem for Raphael's original.
The composition represents the Virgin raising a transparent veil from the infant Christ, just wakened from sleep. The child reaches to play with the veil, an allusion to Christ's burial shroud and early death. The earliest published mention of Raphael's original is made by Giorgio Vasari, the celebrated sixteenth-century biographer of the Italian masters. In the 1550 edition of his Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, he writes that Raphael painted a portrait of Pope Julius II in the same year that he also painted a very beautiful Madonna, noting that both works were preserved in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo. "In the last named picture," Vasari observes, "which represents the Nativity of Christ, the Virgin is covering with a veil the divine Child, the expression of whose countenance is of such wonderful beauty and his whole person so clearly demonstrates the divinity of his origin that all must perceive him to be truly the Son of God."
The above-mentioned portrait of Pope Julius II is probably the painting now in the National Gallery, London. It has been suggested that Pope Julius II, much distressed after his return from Bologna in 1511, donated both the Raphael portrait and Holy Family to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which the pope's family had patronized for several generations. Both paintings were shown to the general public only on religious feast days, when the Holy Family was displayed on one of the church's pillars.
In the Morgan version, as compared to the Chantilly original, the Virgin's brooch has gained a pendant pearl and the drapery on the bed falls in more folds. The high quality and refined detail of the Morgan version distinguish it from most of the other extant examples of this composition. In all likelihood it was made by one of Raphael's pupils during the master's lifetime or shortly after his death.