The Walters Art Museum has been putting its stamp on the nation for more than 77 years — but never in quite the way that it's doing this holiday season.
The museum's "Madonna of the Candelabra," a painting by Raphael with a romantic past, has been chosen by the U.S. Postal Service as an official Christmas stamp for 2011 and 2012.
At least 600 million of the rectangular stamps with "The Walters Art Museum" printed clearly below the image are expected to end up in the mailboxes of American homes and businesses over the next 12 months, according to Postal Service officials.
The mailing madness is expected to peak on Tuesday, when an estimated 801 million cards and letters will be processed nationwide, nearly double the average daily volume.
"We must have bought at least $100 worth of stamps so far ourselves," says Walters Director Gary Vikan, who didn't find out that the museum's painting had been selected until several days after the stamp was unveiled in mid-October in New York.
"It's a warm, beautiful image that bespeaks the holidays by focusing on the relationship between the Christ child and his mother. What everybody loves about Raphael is that his work is both spiritual and maternal."
In addition, the stamp is the first holiday stamp to be classed as a "forever" stamp, so it will always cover the price of mailing a first-class letter, regardless of future increases in postage prices.
"Madonna of the Candelabra," which dates from around 1513, isn't the only holiday stamp to be issued by the Postal Service. Each year, a secular stamp also is released (this year, that stamp shows four 1950s-era ornaments), as are commemorative stamps for such non-Christian celebrations as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and the Muslim holiday of Eid.
About 300 million of the religious-themed Christmas stamps, which are based on works of art hanging in American museums, are sold each year. The Postal Service issued its first Christmas stamp in 1962, when the cost of first-class postage was 4 cents.
Not just any old world-famous masterpiece from the Italian Renaissance can become a holiday stamp.
Stephen Kearney, executive director of stamp services, says that "Madonna of the Candelabra" is just one of eight paintings of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child to be chosen for reproduction in stamp form, of the more than 125 similar museum masterworks that have been submitted for consideration in the past dozen years.
"It's a beautiful work of art," Kearney says, "and we expect it to grace over 600 million cards and letters in 2011 and 2012."
The Postal Service tries to identify images that are relatively simple and which will resonate when cropped and shrunk to about an inch square, he says. The winning paintings must convey a message that will appeal to a wide and diverse population of stamp buyers, since the 1.3 billion holiday stamps sold in October, November and December account for 10 percent of the stamps sold for the entire year.
In addition to the Walters, other museums that have contributed Christmas stamps include the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, California's Hearst Castle and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Kearney says "Madonna of the Candelabra" first was proposed as a Christmas stamp in 1999. But how it first came to the attention of postal officials remains a mystery.
Vikan has his suspicions. He recalls having a conversation around 1999 or 2000 with Cardinal William H. Keeler, who has since retired as head of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Keeler is an avowed art lover who in the past would reproduce an image from the Walters for his personal Christmas cards, and Vikan remembers a conversation in which the two men discussed the merits of the Raphael as a potential commemorative stamp.
"The cardinal told me that he had an in on these matters, and that he was working to get this painting, which he loves, as the Christmas stamp," Vikan recalls.
But as befits a man of God, Keeler denies that he did anything to grease the wheels, though he allows that he is acquainted with the postmaster general.
"I have greeted him upon occasion," Keeler says, "but the Christmas stamp has not figured in our conversation at all."
And though Keeler is quite fond of "Madonna of the Candelabra" — he describes it as "a good representation of the Madonna and Christ child that signifies worthwhileness and goodness" — he prefers another Raphael oil painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that is hanging in the Vatican.
For the Postal Service's part, Kearney says no special pull is required to have a masterpiece dedicated as the Christmas stamp. Anyone in the U.S. can suggest a favorite artwork, he says, and each recommendation will be given serious consideration.
But there's no denying that "Madonna of the Candelabra," in addition to its loveliness, has a historical appeal.
Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, finds the first mention of "Madonna of the Candelabra" in an inventory completed in 1693 of the artworks included in the Borghese Collection, a famed private museum in Rome known for important groups of masterpieces by Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian and of ancient Roman art.
By 1812, the painting had changed hands and was owned by Lucien Bonaparte — a firebrand and Napoleon's duplicitous younger brother.
Less than 100 years after that, Raphael's Madonna made its way to America as an artwork owned by collector and museum founder Henry Walters.
Vikan says "Candelabra" was the first Madonna painted by Raphael ever seen in North America, and the round artwork (called a "tondo") caused a sensation when it entered the U.S. at New York in 1901.
"People stood in line and waited outside in the cold to get a chance to see it," he says.
Because the Postal Service selects its stamps three years in advance, the Walters staff didn't learn that their Madonna would become the Christmas stamp until a few days after the Oct. 13 news conference. Vikan received an email from a art-loving philatelist inquiring whether the original was on view in the museum.
Indeed it is — for now.
Spicer says that at some point this summer, "Madonna of the Candelabra" will be packed up and shipped to Europe, where it will appear first in an exhibit at the Prado in Madrid before traveling to the Louvre in Paris. It won't return to the Walters, she says, until at least the spring of 2013.
Meanwhile, the Walters staff is enjoying their museum's sudden increase in fame. Staff members who hail from throughout the U.S. report that the stamps bearing the Walters' name are available in Chicago, California and Kansas City.
Perhaps because the Raphael celebrates the maternal bond, Vikan can't help thinking of his own mother, who died in 1998.
"I wish she were still living," he says.
"Christmas meant a lot to my family, and to my mother in particular. When I was growing up, my family became familiar with Old Masters paintings through the National Geographic magazine. It would have meant a lot to her that the museum where her son works had contributed the national Christmas stamp.
"She would have been very proud."