Sketch for an enthroned Virgin and Child with St. Nicholas of Tolentino
Pen and brown ink, some lines in black chalk, traces of stylus
Inv. No. 376 (Purchased by Johann David Passavant at the auction of the collection of King William II in The Hague, 1850)
23.3 × 15.4 cm
One of the greatest treasures of the Städel Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings is the group of drawings by Raphael, whose possession we owe to the expertise and foresight of Johann David Passavant, inspector of the collections from 1840 to 1861. This charming pen drawing of the enthroned Virgin and Child and St. Nicholas of Tolentino is the earliest of that group. Raphael executed it at the age of about twenty, at a time when – still under the influence of the works of Pietro Perugino – he was working on his first altarpieces for clients from his native Umbria.
Framed by an architectural structure consisting of pillars, the Virgin is seated on a high throne surmounted by a baldachin, with steps leading up to it in the manner of a dais. On her right leg, which is thrust slightly further forward than the other, she holds and presents the infant Christ, who looks at the drawing’s viewers and blesses them with his little hand. Immediately in front of the throne, on the left, is the youthful Nicholas of Tolentino, a holy monk of the thirteenth century who carried out the work of God in central Italy and was especially venerated there. He can be recognized by the star on his chest, since he was said to have been accompanied by such a star.
The right-hand half of this picture – which is executed with pen-strokes of a light, flowing, and nevertheless descriptive and expressive quality – has been left blank. The drawing was probably intended to be shown to a client as a means of explaining the principle of the planned composition. The work in question may have been the »Ansidei Altar«, completed in 1505 and installed in a church in Perugia (and meanwhile in the National Gallery in London), which shows a very similar throne and has a semi-circular upper edge. In the altarpiece, the Virgin and Child are accompanied to the right and left by St. Nicholas of Bari and St. John the Baptist. It is a beguiling thought that, in his first concept for the altarpiece, Raphael may have mistakenly depicted the »wrong« St. Nicholas.