MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Madonna of Mercy’ by Piero Della Francesca, Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro; 1460 – 1462

 ‘Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, hail, our life, our sweetness, and our hope. ’

For centuries, Catholics all over the world have clung on to the Blessed Mother through word and song, imploring her protection and desiring to be covered by her precious mantle of love and mercy. In the quattrocento, this tender expression of faith was charged by the colors of art and the conviction of the artists.

One such famous masterpiece is the ‘Polyptych of the Misericordia’ by Piero Della Francesca. He painted it for his hometown of Sansepolcro, a region of Tuscany, Italy. Commissioned in 1445 by the Compagnia Della Misericordia, today the painting is conserved in the Museo Civico di Sansepolcro. The gigantic size of the canvas indicates that the Polyptych was intended to be used as an altarpiece.

Piero was born in c 1415 to Benedetto de’ Franceschi, a tradesman. His father died before his birth and hence Piero was called ‘Della Francesca’ after his mother. Although a painter of the Early Renaissance, Piero was contemporarily known as a mathematician and geometer. Nevertheless, today Piero is primarily appreciated for his art characterized by monumentality, mathematical rigor, and naturalism.

As the name suggests, the Polyptych of the Misericordia is executed on multiple panels merged on hinging folds. The ‘Madonna Della Misericordia’ or the ‘Madonna of Mercy’ occupies the central part of the Polyptych and was the last image to be painted. The iconography of the Blessed Virgin sheltering the faithful under her mantle was extremely popular in medieval Italy. Its origins can be traced to the Byzantine tradition.

At first glance, we are welcomed by the towering and all-embracing figure of our Blessed Mother. Modestly subtle yet visibly majestic, the Queen Mother wears a simple crown. A transparent veil frames her oval head. The Virgin Mother is dressed in a long pleated robe kept together at her waist by a simple girdle. Her affectionate gaze is directed towards her children while her outstretched mantle enfolds them with motherly mercy and protection.

The Virgin is twice the size of the fervent faithful gathered around her. Four male figures are seen kneeling at our left while four female figures are seen genuflecting at our right. They display piety, penitence, and admiration. The devoted were meant to represent the citizens of Florence and thus include the patrons, the members of the confraternities, convents as well as individual portraits of the rich and the poor, the young, and the old. The mantle of the Blessed Virgin isolates none. It envelops all.

It is important to note that the gold background surrounding the figures was a distinct request by the confraternity. It compelled the artist to abandon his much-loved landscape scenes. However, to deal with the flatness of the gilded panel Piero presented the kneeling members in a realistic three-dimensional space. Notice the curved robes of the Madonna. Doesn’t it resemble the sacred apse of the Church? Does it not reflect Mary’s role as Mother of God, our Mother as well as the Mother of the Church?

The Hebrew word for mercy, ‘rahamim’, is derived from ‘rehem’, a mother’s womb. God’s mercy comes to us from the very depths of His being – it is intimate, unconditional, undeserving, and life-giving. God fashioned Mary to be the created masterpiece of His mercy in the world. The Blessed Virgin mirrors the Divine Mercy of her beloved Son. Her blue and blood-red robe hearkens to the blood and water that gushed forth from His merciful heart for the salvation of all human-kind.

But who can forget those extreme words of mercy at the Cross? – ‘Woman, behold your son…son behold your mother.’ Through this, we have recourse to her motherly care and protection and with this, we recall Mary’s famous words to St. Juan Diego in Guadalupe:

‘Listen and let it penetrate your heart…do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety, or pain. Am I not here, I who am your Mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not the source of your joy? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else that you need?’

© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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