Our Lady of Mercy

Piero della Francesca (Borgo Sansepolcro 1416/17 – 1492), Our Lady of Mercy, 1445-1462, oil and tempera on wood, cm 168x91, Sansepolcro, Museo Civico

The table is in the middle of a great altarpiece, that is made up of five large panels, a dais and eleven boards distributed across the molding and sides, Piero was asked by the Brothers of Mercy in 1445 to adorn the main altar of the church next to the Hospital. The piece, due to various other commitments taken on throughout Italy, was finished 15 years later.

The altarpiece was taken down around 1630 and the original frame was lost forever. Subsequently, with the suppression of the Religious Companies, the painting, now dismantled, was moved firstly to the St. Rocco Church and then became municipal property in the Art Gallery of the town.

In the centre we see Our Lady of Mercy, a representation of the Virgin Mary who opens her cloak to offer shelter and protection to the people who venerate her, derived from the medieval custom of the “protection of the cloak”, that noblewomen of powerful families could offer to the persecuted and those in need. The faithful are much smaller than the Virgin and form a semi-circle, four men to the left and four women to the right. Among the men there is a hooded broche, a notably rich man dressed in red, and according to an old legend, the man beside the Mary’s cloak is a self-portrait of the painter.   

The figure of Our Lady, who stands on a dark base, demonstrates and confirms Piero’s great interest for geometry: the cylindrical form of the cloak, the cone of the Virgin’s halo and crown, the perfect oval of her face. Mary’s belt is knotted in a way to form a cross. 

It is the precise figure of Mary that catches our attention: her huge cloak, that she unfolds effortlessly, resembles the apse or a section of the chapel of a church, instilling security in those who have come to her seeking grace and protection. And it seems almost as if one can hear the echoes of the ancient prayer Sub tuum praesidium, dating back to the 3rd century, still used in Christian liturgy today:

 

Beneath your compassion,

We take refuge, O Mother of God:

do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:

but rescue us from dangers,

only pure, only blessed one.