The identity of Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ new mystery picture was such a closely guarded secret that even the director’s husband was in the dark until Friday.

Raphael’s “Madonna of the Pinks,” a $50 million painting on loan from the National Gallery in London, drew applause and gasps of appreciation from museum staff and board members when it was unveiled.

“It’s small but mighty,” said director Kaywin Feldman as the crowd surged in to see the 500-year-old painting — a mere 8 inches wide and 11 inches tall.

Installed in a special gallery near the museum’s entrance at 2400 3rd Av. S., the picture will be on display until Aug. 9. Admission to see it is free.

The loan is the second of three “big surprises” that the museum is presenting to Minnesotans this year as part of its 100th birthday celebration. It follows a Vermeer painting, “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter,” loaned from January through April by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

The Minneapolis museum has no Raphael paintings in its collection.

Flower of the gods

The picture shows a sweet young Madonna handing a sprig of pink carnations to her infant son perched on a plump pillow in a darkened room. He’s gazing at the pretty flowers whose Greek name, dianthus, means flower of the gods. In Christianity’s complex symbolism, the flowers refer to Christ’s divinity, his humanity, his future suffering on the cross, and even to the mystic marriage between mother and child. In Catholic doctrine the Madonna, Mary, is also known as the bride of Christ.

“Wow,” said Diane Lilly, the museum’s board president, as she admired the painting.

It was painted about 1506 by Raffaello Santi, known as Raphael, who was then just 23 and already one of the most famous artists of Renaissance Europe. A painter, poet, architect and bon vivant, he was the exemplar of Renaissance talent and sophistication.

“He was a true genius who really could do whatever he wanted to,” said Rachel McGarry, the museum’s associate curator of painting.

A contemporary of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Raphael (1483-1520) was born in Urbino, a small town in what is now northeastern Italy, trained in Florence, and was summoned by Pope Julius II to come to Rome to paint the pope’s private quarters. He was soon promoted to the era’s top job as architect of St. Peter’s.

Authenticity questioned

The history of the “Madonna of the Pinks” is spiced up with the scholarly squabbles that art historians love. Most likely commissioned by Maddalena degli Oddi, a rich Perugian who had joined a nunnery, it is a compositional riff on a Leonardo da Vinci painting that’s now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

Raphael’s is a much more fetching and naturalistic picture, though. His Madonna is younger and prettier, he’s simplified a ridiculous tangle of hands in the Leonardo, and he added a landscape out the window.

The painting was written about and copied early on, but then disappeared until the early 1800s. After it resurfaced, a prominent art historian hailed it as the real deal in 1829. Then a rival art historian said “nope” in 1835, and the cat fight was on.

Finally the Duke of Northumberland bought it in 1853 and hung it Alnwick Castle, where it moldered away in a corridor, largely forgotten, until 1991. Enter a big deal Raphael expert, Nicholas Penny, who declared it an authentic masterpiece. Soon the Duke’s family decided to sell it to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Suddenly the long-ignored picture was big news and the British government refused to grant an export license. Then the National Gallery raised $50 million in private and public money and bought the picture for the nation in 2004.

Some art historians continued to squabble, but recent analysis of the paint and underdrawings using infrared reflectography have certified its originality.

“The great Raphael scholars have all looked at it and its authenticity is not a concern any more,” said McGarry.

Beauty for the ages

Loans of such rarity and value often require much wrangling and an exchange of comparable value, but Minneapolis officials insist that wasn’t needed to secure the Raphael.

“It was just the usual negotiations,” said the museum’s painting curator, Patrick Noon, who has long ties to the National Gallery. “Well, I am doing a Delacroix show for them,” he added. “And they did have our ‘Lucretia’ in the ‘Late Rembrandt’ show that’s now in Amsterdam.”

The Delacroix show, which opens in Minneapolis this fall, will travel only to London.

By the time he died, at 37, Raphael had established a standard of idealized beauty that defined femininity for centuries.

“Raphael’s concept of feminine beauty had an influence that cannot be overstated,” wrote the late Kenneth Clark, former director of London’s National Gallery. “For over 300 years it was an ideal to which every woman aspired. ‘Belle comme une Madone de Raphael (As beautiful as a Raphael Madonna),’ was a standard expression of praise, and was reflected in the work of dozens of painters from Ingres downward.”


Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431