Works of Mercy

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August 2016

Antonio da Fabriano (active between 1451 and 1489), Virgin of Mercy, approximately 1470, oil on wood, 97x75 cm, Milan, Istituto Giuseppe Toniolo di studi superiori

We do not know much of this work by the painter from the Marche region in Italy, except for the fact that it was done by the person of the banner of procession painted on both sides, a widespread technique in the fifteenth century, especially in the Apennine Area. On the lower board of the frame two wooden extensions which were used for transportation of the artefact with two metal poles are still visible.

On the side of the mighty picture of the Virgin there are two saints, certainly dear to who commissioned the painting: Saint Sebastian on the left and a saintly bishop on the right. But Mary is the absolute protagonist, in the centre of the painting, with her rich brocade, pale red dress with bejewelled crowns. The gesture of her opening arms creates an effect of coverage and niche of the cloak. The representatives of all the people of God find refugee under it, as for a consolidated iconographic tradition.

The men are on the left, among which we recognize six: two members of a confraternity, dressed in white with hoods, a very elegant laity of a certain age, a pope with a tiara, a cardinal with a hat and a bishop with a miter. The women are on the right, among which a young woman dressed in red stands out – she is, most likely, the wife of the laity man on the left – also surrounded by other four women.

The prevailing behaviour among all characters is devotion, which represent humanity. It is not by chance that they are all painted with their hands together and looking upwards. The variety of the present people as well as the clear reference both to the two donors who commissioned and paid for the painting, and to the confraternity in which the banner be used tells us the will of all of them to set their lives under the loving protection of the Virgin Mary.  

Meaningful is also the fact that the scene takes place in a garden, as testified by the numerous wildflowers and grass where the small kneeling pictures, the Virgin and the two saints are based. The reference  to the hortus conclusus is immediate. That “fenced garden” was a symbol of the Earthly Paradise and of Mary’s virginity in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, in both cases synonym of perfection and bliss.