Dali Paid Homage to Raphael in ‘Madonna of the Birds’


By Paul Chimera

Salvador Dali Historian


Salvador Dali was a wonderful watercolorist, and a great illustration of this is found in his “Madonna of the Birds” of 1945, in the The Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.


This Dali painting is a clear nod to the Renaissance master Raphael, whom Dali always included when naming his top three favorite painters, probably in this order: Velasquez, Raphael, and Vermeer.


Dali was never afraid to look back while moving forward as arguably the 20th century’s greatest artist. Indeed, Dali embraced the debt he owed to the greats who came before him, and in the present case his homage to Raphael is a delicate little watercolor with which few people are familiar but which they really ought to get to know.


The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where Raphael’s “Alba Madonna” resides, writes about the work:


“Mary, Jesus, and John the Baptist are linked—by gaze, pose, and understanding—as they contemplate the cross Jesus takes in his hand. With calm gravity they apprehend the gesture’s significance: in this moment all see and accept Christ’s future sacrifice. But the limitlessness of the circular panel, its clear colors, and the Virgin’s radiant beauty hold out the promise of Grace.

“Seamless integration of form and meaning is a hallmark of the High Renaissance, a brief moment when a timeless, classical style balanced the perceptual and the conceptual attractions of art. Raphael reached this point of perfect counterpoise after assimilating lessons from Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the art of ancient Rome—all of which we see reflected in The Alba Madonna.”

Raphael's "Alba Madonna," which inspired Dali's watercolor.

Raphael’s “Alba Madonna,” which inspired Dali’s watercolor.

Dali’s reimagined “Madonna” – inspired, of course, by the Raphael masterpiece – bears some obvious similarities: the three principal figures, the cross, the foreground flora, and – most distinctively – the blue sandal on the foot of the Madonna. The third figure in Dali’s work, if presumably representative of John the Baptist, appears sexually ambiguous, and unlike the Raphael work, holds a dove.


Ingeniously, Dali adds mystery, movement, and a deeper sense of spirituality and ethereality to his work through the use of the double-image of birds in flight, which simultaneously form the face of the Virgin. This is one of the things that set Salvador Dali apart from others – this penchant for “seeing” in ways most of us never thought of.


“Madonna of the Birds” is literally that – she is “of the birds,” composed of birds that effectively double as her gentle countenance. This device was seen in several other lovely Dali creations, including another watercolor, “Dance of the Flower Maidens,” as well as the birds-face approach in one of the three oil panels Dali executed for Helena Rubinstein’s apartment in New York City, and his design for a Peace Medal cast in silver.

While many of us focus on Dali paintings, Dali drawings and Dali prints, I think it’s important to appreciate just how marvelous Salvador Dali was in the medium of watercolor. “Madonna of the Birds” is a superb example!

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