Raphael - The Beautiful Gardener

by Alexandra Tuschka


It almost seems like an everyday scene: on a beautiful sunny day, Mother Mary has gone outside with the boy Jesus and the son of her cousin Elisabeth John the Baptist. She actually wanted to read a little, but now the naked son steps on her foot with his foot and demands a little attention. Cheekily, he also wants to take the book out of her hand. She lovingly holds him back. The other child looks a bit unusual, in camel skin and with a cross staff. Perhaps he felt like dressing up? It is precisely this supposed ordinariness that has earned this work its status as one of the masterpieces of the Italian Raphael. Of course, almost everything in this work is symbolic and well thought out!

As a child of the Renaissance, Raphael arranges the group of people in a typical triangular composition. In this way he conveys uniformity, but also stability. The horizon line is unusually high, almost on the centre line of the picture and at the level of Mary's girdle. The rounded upper corners further frame the picture and enhance the intimacy. Carefully studied plants predominate in the foreground, the background consists of a lake, mountains and a small Italian village on the right. There are a few fleecy clouds in the sky.


The gestures are, of course, to be placed in the biblical context: John the Baptist was an ascetic in the desert as well as the last prophet to announce the Saviour, so his attributes have already been integrated here to make him recognisable, even though he is still a child. His humility is expressed by kneeling and looking humbly towards Jesus. He in turn looks at his mother as he confidently reaches for the book. Her eyes lower and return the child's gaze. These lines of sight are also essential for the interpretation. Jesus, who with his "taking" also wants to take his fate in a figurative sense and expresses his consent to it, encounters the impulses of his mother. She cannot decide between hesitating and allowing and thus reveals an all too human emotion. This ambivalence is also expressed, for example, in the famous Sistine Madonna, as Mary on the one hand hands over her son to us - the viewer and the world - but on the other hand a worried knowledge is expressed in her face.

Further details underline this interpretation: Mary is seen in her Marian colours of red and blue; a light veil covers her eyes and face. The book, as a book of life, symbolises destiny on the one hand, as already mentioned, but is also a reference to the Annunciation iconography. In these scenes we usually see Mary interrupted by an angel while reading. This refers to her piety, education and purity. The treading on the foot, on the other hand, is a rare motif and was used even more frequently in the Middle Ages as a sign of dominance (for example, Jesus likes to tread on the foot of a soldier); in this case, the gesture stands for independence and also that the maternal impulses are subordinate in this hierarchy. Jesus' fate is sanctioned by this. Some plants in the foreground take up this theme: the violets stand for the humility of the Madonna, the columbines for the passion of Christ.


If we follow the thesis accepted by experts that this work is mentioned in Vasari's Vitae, it was a commissioned work for a certain Filippo Sergardi, of whom little else was known. Because Raphael was ordered from Siena to Rome in 1508, the blue cloak had to be completed by Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio. Francis I bought it in the same century and brought it to Paris, where it is now in the Louvre. The great influence of the work is also noticeable in the many copies that other artists made of it.


The title "The Beautiful Gardener" was not created until the 19th century. Since we are dealing here with a nature scene, but by no means with gardening, this title is also to be understood symbolically, in that Mary embodies an archetype of the mother as the bringer up, nurturer and guardian.


Raphael - The Beautiful Gardener / Mary with Jesus and John the Baptist

Oil on poplar wood, c. 1507/08, 122 × 80 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris


Raphael - The Sistine Madonna

Oil on canvas, 1512/1513, 256 x 196 cm, Old Masters Picture Gallery in Dresden


Konrad Witz - The Annunciation to Mary

Oil on wood, 1437 - 1440, 157 x 120 cm, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg