Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and its frames

by The Frame Blog

This article was written by Marianne Saal, and was first published online on 15th December 2022 by WERNER MURRER RAHMEN. It is republished here by kind permission of the author and publisher.

Raphael (1483-1520), the Sistine Madonna, c.1512-14, 265 x 196 cm., displayed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo: Herbert Boswank

The Sistine Madonna in the Dresden State Art Collections is one of the most famous paintings in the history of art, and 2022 marks the tenth anniversary of its last reframing, which was executed by WERNER MURRER RAHMEN. We would like to take this opportunity to report on the alternating and exciting framing history of the Sistine Madonna. It received a new frame for its 500th birthday, which was celebrated in 2012, and has since been on view in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, in a reconstruction of an Italian aedicular frame from around 1500.

To ensure an historically correct frame which would also be appropriate for museum presentation, intensive research was conducted preceding the project. The path to this led first of all to Piacenza, where the painting was originally displayed. Commissioned by Pope Julius II, Raphael painted the Sistine Madonna in 1512/13 as a high altarpiece for the monastery church of San Sisto in Piacenza. It was then sold in 1754 to August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, and is now on view in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden. A copy by Pier Antonio Avanzani has been installed in San Sisto since the painting was sold.

For cultural, political or conservation reasons, the Sistine Madonna has changed its location several times over the centuries, and in the same way it has also changed its frame: during its 500-year history, nine different framings of the painting have been recorded, some of which are documented in writing and others in pictures or photographs.

The framing history of the Sistine Madonna

The construction of the church of San Sisto began in 1499, after its mediaeval predecessor was demolished. By 1514 at the latest, when the church was consecrated, the Sistine Madonna had been installed there as the high altarpiece [1]. In the chapter on the artist by Vasari, ‘The life of Raphael’ in his Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, the painting and its original purpose are mentioned in writing for the first time:

‘For the Black Friars of S. Sisto in Piacenza, he painted the picture for their high-altar, containing the Madonna with S. Sisto and S. Barbara, a truly rare and extraordinary work.’ [2]

By ‘the Black Friars’, Vasari meant the Benedictines, and when referring to the painting, he used the word ‘tavola’ or panel. In this case he is not describing the support material of the painting as a wooden panel, since the Sistine Madonna was executed on canvas, but in using the word ‘tabula’ or ‘tavola’ he is, rather, referring to the whole framed altarpiece – describing the frame and painting as a single unit, as had been the custom in documents since 1302 [3].

The first frame

What the original frame looked like in Raphael´s time is unknown, although it is assumed that an architectural aedicular design was used, as was common at the time. Raphael may also have conceived and designed the painting with a frame [4].  Besides its first mention by Vasari, whose work was only written and published a few decades after the painting was completed, documentary sources on the display of the painting are extremely rare [5]. In 1576 a remodelling of the church was carried out in which the entire choir was lengthened and the thirty-two choir stalls – which had been made by Giampietro Pambianco da Colorno and Bartolomeo Spinelli da Busseto in 1514 – placed behind the altar. This also makes a reconstruction of the original location of the altarpiece more difficult [6].

Giampietro Pambianco da Colorno and Bartolomeo Spinelli da Busseto, choir stalls, 1514, apse of San Sisto, Piacenza. Photo: Corvinus

The second and third frames

If you visit San Sisto today, you will find a copy of the Sistine Madonna, painted by Pier Antonio Avanzini around 1730, and framed in an extraordinary Baroque extravaganza [7]; it hangs over the high altar, which is placed on the back wall of the apse between two windows, with the choir stalls directly in front of it [8]. The gildwood frame, which is decorated with sweeping acanthus leaves, volutes, and putti, characteristic of the Baroque, was carved by Giovanni Setti in 1697/98 for the original painting by Raphael, which it held from 1698 until the mid-18th century.

View of the apse of the monastery church, with the copy of the Sistine Madonna in its Baroque leaf frame hanging above the choir stalls; San Sisto, Piacenza

Raphael (1483-1520), the Sistine Madonna, 1513-14, o/c, 269.5 x 201 cm., detail of painted curtain rail, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

Giovanni Setti, Baroque leaf frame made for the Sistine Madonna and now holding a copy of the painting: detail with curtain rail slung along the top rail

A close comparison of the original painting and its copy reveals that the curtain rod with lengths of fabric attached to the rings cannot be seen in the latter. Instead, a real curtain rail is fixed to the frame, on which curtains can be strung for liturgical purposes. However, the depiction without a curtain rod is not an inaccuracy on the part of the copyist. At the time Avanzini made his replica, the upper edge of the painting was folded over, so that he never saw the curtain rod. This change to the original composition was only reversed when the painting was restored in Dresden in 1826 by Pietro Palmaroli from Rome [9], although it is unclear when the painting had been reduced in this way. Could it have been at the time of the church renovation of 1544? or when the sculptor Guiseppe Grattoni was commissioned to reframe the picture in 1599 [10]? or when the 1697/98 Baroque frame, which can be seen today, was applied [11]? Grattoni’s frame was the second and Giovanni Setti’s the third frame of the Sistine Madonna. The lunette with two angels holding a crown above the image of the Madonna, which is fixed into Setti’s Baroque frame, was probably painted for a previous frame when the church was first renovated in 1544 [12].

Pier Antonio Avanzini (1656-1733), the Sistine Madonna copy, c.1730, in Giovanni Setti’s Baroque leaf frame of 1697/98, San Sisto, Piacenza

On 1st December 1753, the painting – having been sold by the monks of Piacenza due to their financial straits – was removed from its Baroque frame [13]. In order to transport it to Germany, which (not only because of the wintry weather) turned out to be extremely difficult, it was packed upright in a box; it was finally unpacked again on 1st March 1754 in the audience hall of the Royal Palace in Dresden. There was, therefore, a gap of almost a year between the signing of the sales contract on 9th March 1753, and the presentation of the painting to Augustus III.

The fourth frame

On its arrival in Germany the painting was given a collection or livery frame – the so-called Dresden gallery frame – and the fourth frame of the Sistine Madonna. The Dresden gallery frame is a pattern especially designed for the collection, and approved by Augustus III for use from the mid-18th century onwards.

Example of a Dresden gallery frame on Vermeer, A girl reading a letter by a window, 1657-58, o/c, 83 x 64.5 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Dresden

In order to achieve an harmonious hang amongst the diverse elements of the collection, all paintings, regardless of their period, were framed in the Rococo style, current during Augustus III’s reign [14]. These frames were executed to the highest standard of craftsmanship, both sculpturally and with regards to the gilding, and were often differentiated by having the corners and centres enriched with rocailles or cartouches [15].

The Sistine Madonna was initially placed, relatively inconspicuously in its Dresden frame, within the gallery constructed in the former stable yard; it hung on the outside wall at the end of the long inner wall [16]. It was not until 1817 that the painting was hung in a more prominent position, where it came into the visitor’s field of vision as soon as he or she entered the room.

Unknown artist, view of the inner gallery known as ‘Stallhof”, 1830, aquatint, 19.8 x 25 cm.; the Sistine Madonna hangs on the bottom tier to the left of the end wall, in its Dresden gallery frame; Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden. Photo: Herbert Boswank

By the mid-19th century the converted stable was no longer adequate in terms of space, safety, or conservation, and a new gallery was built on the north side of the Zwinger to a plan by the architect Gottfried Semper [17]. For reasons of safety the Sistine Madonna was covered with glass for the first time in 1843, for which purpose a steel skeleton was inserted into the giltwood frame [18]. The Semper Building then opened on 25th September 1855, and the painting found its latest sanctuary in the corner gallery marked as ‘A’ on the plan [19].

Plan of the rooms in the Dresden gallery, 1856, Kunstbibliothek, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

The fifth frame

Whilst Raphael’s painting was initially displayed in a Rococo Dresden gallery frame, in the mid-19th century it was given a Renaissance-style aedicular frame, designed in December 1855 by the court architect Bernhard Krüger, and carved by the sculptor Türpe [20]. When this had been erected in the Semper Building, equipped with the steel frame and glazed, the painting was installed on 9th July 1856. This new frame – the fifth so far – gave the painting back its appearance of an altarpiece [21]; such an historicizing style was quite common to the 19th century. The tie was strengthened through the inscription of Vasari’s lines on the work on the predella panel – the first mention of the painting and its destination.

   Raphael (1483-1520), the Sistine Madonna (c.1512-14) in Room A of the museum wing designed by Gottfried Semper, 1855, Photo: c.1920-30, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

The sixth frame

In order to protect the Sistine Madonna from war damage, the painting was removed from this frame on 11th September 1939, and – after being stored temporarily in the basement of the Zwinger Pavilion – it was put into a packing case and taken to the banqueting hall of Albrechtsburg Castle in Meissen [22]. There it remained in store for almost four years in its case in a niche in the wall, along with 427 other boxed-up paintings from the gallery. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the aedicular frame. On 15th December 1943, the Sistine Madonna was moved to the railway tunnel at Lohmgrund near Rottwerndorf, a village in the municipality of Pirna in Saxony, where the climatic conditions were better.

At the end of the Second World War, the painting – which at that point was in temporary storage at Pillnitz Castle near Dresden – was taken to Moscow by the Red Army, together with other works from the Dresden collections. This removal of pirated art, which began on 30th July 1945 [23], reached the Pushkin Museum in Moscow on 10th August; it became one of the depots for paintings and other works of art looted by the Soviets. The Sistine Madonna was not put on public display again until 2nd May 1955, when it was exhibited in the Pushkin Museum in its sixth frame, a NeoClassical pattern.

Raphael (1483-1520), the Sistine Madonna in its new NeoClassical frame, displayed in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow,
photograph (modern print/detail) from the album of the Exhibition of the Dresden Picture Gallery from 2nd May-20th August 1955 in the Pushkin Museum, Archiv der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

The seventh frame

The painting was returned to Dresden the same year, presumably without a frame. A so-called ‘painting passport’ in Russian and German, created for each picture when it was imported into the Soviet Union, was supplemented by existing information such as the state of preservation and conservation measures taken. In the case of the Sistine Madonna, the field for ‘picture frame’ remained blank [24].

The first exhibition of the Dresden paintings after their return from the USSR took place over five months from the end of November 1955 in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin [25]. Photographs of the opening of this exhibition show that the Sistine Madonna was now framed differently from the NeoClassical style it had been given in the Pushkin Museum. This seventh frame of Raphael’s Madonna appears to be an outward sloping Baroque moulding.

Opening of the exhibition of Dresden paintings in the Nationagalerie, Berlin, 27th November 1955; the Sistine Madonna now has a frame with a Baroque profile, Archiv der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The eighth frame

However, this frame too was replaced.

Raphael, the Sistine Madonna in the 1956 frame by Otto Heybey, Gemäldegalerie Alte MeisterDresden

For the reopening of the Semper Gallery on 3rd June 1956, which finally saw the Sistine Madonna return to its home in Dresden, the workshop of Dresden’s master gilder Otto Heybey created a design based on an Italian Renaissance model, and financed by a donation from the Dresden Chamber of Trades & Crafts (Handswerkskemmer Dresden) [26]. The Sistine Madonna would remain in this eighth setting until given a new and final frame for its 500th anniversary in the gallery of the Dresden Art Collections.

2012: the ninth frame of the Sistine Madonna

With this last frame for the Sistine Madonna, it was essential to ensure that the design did justice both to the importance of the painting and to its historical context [27], and that it was also suitable for museum display, taking the premises and aesthetic, conservational and security-related requirements into account: the painting should sit forward in the frame to minimize shadows, the frame construction should be suitable for glazing, and the canvas should be easily accessible in an emergency.

Raphael, the Sistine Madonna in its replica Renaissance-style altarpiece frame, Gemäldegalerie Alte MeisterDresden. Photo: David Brandt, 2012

As explained in the framing history above, there were no extant clues as to the original frame of the Sistine Madonna which could have been used in a reconstruction; only the original purpose of the painting as a high altarpiece was known. Other contemporary Renaissance altarpiece frames are also rare: Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno (1511-12), which was probably intended for the high altar of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, has for example also lost its original frame [28]. Raphael painted the Sistine Madonna directly after the Madonna di Foligno, the frame of which might have served as a template. Incidentally, before the Sistine Madonna was acquired, the Dresden court also conducted purchasing negotiations in respect of the Madonna di Foligno, in order to obtain a Raphael for Augustus III’s gallery [29]. The Madonna di Foligno is now in the collection of the Vatican Museums.

Raphael (after; 1483-1520), The ecstasy of St Cecilia, copy of 1513 painting in the original frame still in situ in the Dall’ Olio Chapel, San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna

Raphael (after), The ecstasy of St Cecilia, copy of 1513 painting in the original frame; the crest, stepped plinth and frontal added later

The only known original frame of an altarpiece by Raphael is that for his St Cecilia in San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna [30]. The frame was probably made by Andrea di Pietra Marchesi, known as Andrea da Formigine, the head carver and stonemason in Bologna at the time. The 1513 painting by Raphael is now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, in a replica of the original frame, whilst the frame itself remains in San Giovanni in Monte, containing a copy of the St Cecilia. The crest of this original frame was probably added in the 18th century, and  the stepped plinth and altar frontal in the 19th century. Although there are no drawings from Raphael’s hand nor by his assistants for the frame, it is possible that Raphael conceived the painting together with the frame and regarded it as an essential part of the painting.

Based on this example, only a contemporary altarpiece setting would form an authentic model for reframing the Sistine Madonna. The discovery of such a model came about by chance: Werner Murrer travelled to Italy in order to research a solution, and followed clues to various locations, including the church of San Sisto in Piacenza itself, the Vatican Museums, and finally to Bologna, south-east of Piacenza.

Giacomo Francia (1486-1557), The Archangel Michael with SS Domenico & Francesco, San Domenico, Bologna

Here, as well as the church of San Giovanni in Monte, the home of St Cecilia’s frame, there is also San Domenico, where a frame close in design to that of the St Cecilia is located [31]; almost certainly also attributable to Il Formigine.

Lorenzo Costa (c.1460-1535), Madonna & Child with saints (Pala Ghedini), 1497, 220 x 140 cm., San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna

However, it also turned out that, next to the chapel in San Giovanni in Monte for which Raphael had painted St Cecilia, there is another Renaissance frame, or more precisely another complete altarpiece consisting of a picture and its original setting: Lorenzo Costa’s 1497 painting of a Madonna enthroned and surrounded by saints still retains its 15th century aedicular frame.

Giampietro Pambianco da Colorno and Bartolomeo Spinelli da Busseto, choir stalls, 1514, San Sisto, Piacenza; detail of pilasters

What was striking about it was that the carved ornaments of the pilasters resembled the pilasters of the choir stalls of San Sisto in Piacenza from 1514. There may even have been a connection here in the execution of the carving. In addition, the proportions of Costa’s enthroned Madonna and Raphael’s Sistine Madonna were related, and – with its overall gilding – the frame did not compete with the colours of Raphael’s painting. So, quite accidentally, a model for the new frame of the Sistine Madonna had been found.

The frame of Lorenzo Costa’s altarpiece in San Giovanni in Monte was therefore replicated, with no alteration to the proportions and only minor ornamental changes, and the naturally aged patina was imitated. With this remaking of a 500-year-old frame, Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and its new altarpiece setting have formed an authentic whole since 2012.

Marianne Saal, art historian

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See also ‘Presenting the legend: the many frames of Raphael

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[1] See Andreas Henning, ‘Raffaels Sixtinische Madonna. Kultbild und Bildkult’, in Andreas Henning (ed.), Die Sixtinische Madonna. Raffaels Kultbild wird 500, exh. cat., Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 26 May–26 August 2012, Munich 2012, p. 29

[2] Giorgio Vasari, ‘Life of Raffaello da Urbino (Raffaello Sanzio)’, in Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, Macmillan, 1912-13, vol. IV,  p. 238.  Vasari’s Lives was first published in 1550, with a revised and expanded version in 1568; Raphael’s Sistine Madonna is mentioned in the same words in both editions

[3] See Christa Gardner von Teuffel, From Duccio’s Maestà to Raphael’s Transfiguration: Italian altarpieces and their settings, London 2005, p. 276

[4] Ibid., p. 283

[5] A lack of source material may be due to the fact that the archives of the monastery itself were lost in the Napoleonic era. See Moritz Stübel, Raffaels Sixtinische Madonna. Aus alten bisher unbekannten Quellen, Dresden 1926, p. 18

[6] Gardner von Teuffel, op. cit., p. 282; Henning, op. cit., p. 29

[7] Henning, ibid.

[8] Stübel, op. cit., p. 22; the author reports the building of a new choir around 1700, which explains the current arrangement

[9] Christoph Schölzel (includes historical documents), in Die Sixtinische Madonna, op. cit., Dresden 2012, p. 249; Schölzel, ‘Die Restaurierungsgeschichte der Sixtinischen Madonna’, in Claudia Brink & Andreas Henning (eds), Raffael: Die Sixtinische Madonna. Geschichte und Mythos eines Meisterwerks, München/Berlin 2005, pp. 100-01

[10] John Shearman, Raphael in early modern sources (1483-1602), New Haven &c. 2003, vol. 2, pp. 1432-33, with text source from Raffaela Arisi, La chiesa et il monastero di S. Sisto a Piacenza, Piacenza 1977, pp. 278-79

[11] Henning, Dresden 2012, op. cit., p. 29. See also Peter Stephan, ‘Im Angesicht des Todes. Die Bedeutung der Sixtinischen Madonna als Altarbild’, in Stephan Koja (ed.), Raffael und die Madonna, exh. cat., Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 4 December 2020–9 May 2021, Munich 2020, pp. 93-94, where the new 1697/98 frame is mentioned as the most logical explanation for the top of the canvas having been folded over. Peter Stephan also discusses in his essay the exact iconographic meaning of the curtain painted by Raphael, ibid., pp. 93-108

[12] Henning, ibid., p. 29; Henning, ‘Raffael in Rom und die Entstehung der Sixtinischen Madonna’, in Brink/Henning (eds), op. cit., p. 41

[13] For the following section and details of the negotiations, sale and transport of the painting, cf. Claudia Brink: Der Ankauf der Sixtinischen Madonna »Un sì prezioso tesoro«, in: exhibition catalogue, Dresden 2012, pp. 69-73

[14] Harald Marx, ‘Alles im richtigen Rahmen? Eine Dresdener Tradition und einige Ausrahmen’, in Christoph Schölzel (ed.), Die blendenden Rahmen. Der Dresdener Galerierahmen, Worms 2005, p. 5

[15] A distinction was made in the design of the Dresden gallery frame between the simpler type, the panel frame, and a more elaborate pattern for pastel paintings and miniatures; see Christoph Schölzel, ‘Der Dresdener Galerierahmen. Geschichte, Technik, Restaurierung’, in Die blendenden Rahmen, ibid., p. 21ff

[16] For the hanging of the painting, see Dresden 2012, op. cit., p. 250

[17] Ibid., p. 260 for the new building

[18] Schölzel, in Brink/Henning (eds), op. cit., p. 103

[19] See Dresden 2012, op. cit., p. 262

[20] For the new frame, see Schölzel, Brink/Henning (eds), 2005, p. 104

[21] Claudia Brink, ‘Der Name des Künstlers. Ein Raffael für Dresden’, in Brink/Henning, ibid., p. 89

[22] For the following section on the evacuation of the Sistine Madonna, its transport to Moscow and return to Dresden, see Thomas Rudert, ‘Präsenz im Verborgenen: Die Sixtinische Madonna zwischen 1939 und 1955’, in Dresden 2012, op. cit., pp. 113-121

[23] Because of the major status of the Sistine Madonna, it is assumed that it was amongst the first works of art to leave Dresden on 30th July 1945. Ibid., p. 119

[24] Ibid., p. 310, especially note 4

[25] Now the Alte Nationalgalerie. Ibid., p. 311

[26] Ibid., p. 313

[27] For the significance of an aedicular frame for the Sistine Madonna, see Stephan, in Dresden 2020, op. cit., pp. 104-108

[28] For the origin, destination and frame of the Madonna di Foligno, see Gardner von Teuffel 2005, op. cit., pp. 278-81

[29] Brink, in Dresden 2012, op. cit., pp. 69-70

[30] For the following section on the execution and conception of picture and frame see Gardner von Teuffel 2005, op. cit., pp. 274-77

[31] Ibid., pp. 274-75