Raffaello Sanzio, known as Raphael (Urbino, Italy 1483 – Rome, Italy 1520), Madonna of Foligno, 1511-12, oil on wood transferred to canvas, 308 cm x 198 cm, Vatican City, Pinacoteca
This beautiful work of art was commissioned to Raphael by Sigismondo de' Conti, a distinguished humanist from Foligno, Italy and secretary of Pope Julius II. The painting was meant to be a thanksgiving to the Virgin for having saved his house in Foligno, struck by lightning or a fireball. We can see a reference to this story both in the beautiful landscape in the background - we can see a small town and a solid house about to be struck by a flaming trail coming down from the sky - and in the little angel in the centre of the painting holding an empty plaque, probably destined to commemorate the vow fulfilled by the Virgin.
The canvas - the first altarpiece by Raphael for a Roman church - was placed on the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Aracœli, in whose apse Sigismondo was buried. Then, in 1565, a nun niece of his, Anna Conti, had the panel transferred to the church of Sant'Anna in a monastery in Foligno (hence the name). Stolen by Napoleon, it was returned to the Papal States in 1816. Then, it was transferred to its present location at the behest of Pope Pius VII.
Let us recognise the characters. In heaven, surrounded by an unusual multitude of angels, the Virgin sits on a throne of clouds and holds the Child Jesus firmly in her lap; the thickness of the clouds is showed by the pressure exerted by Mary's feet and, above all, by Jesus' left foot. On earth, apart from the angel who had a didactic function, there are four characters. On the right, kneeling and with a rich purple-red cloak lined with ermine revealing the sleeve of an elegant black dress, is the patron of the work, Sigismondo de' Conti, who is presented to the Virgin by Saint Jerome, recognisable by the lion next to him that stares at us on the very right of the painting. On the left, kneeling, is St. Francis - the church of Aracœli was in fact entrusted to the order he founded as early as 1250 – and, standing, is St. John the Baptist, who once again points to Jesus (“The next day, John saw Jesus coming towards him and said: 'Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!’,” John 1:29) to all of us who contemplate this work of art.
Before this masterpiece, I believe that the best thing we can do is to let ourselves be touched by the great beauty that emanates from the many elements of it: the balance between the figures and between the sky and the earth; the harmony of the colours, with blue and red as predominant; the peacefulness of the landscape, with so many shades of green that take us to the gentle hills of Marche and Umbria, in Italy, where Raphael was born and formed; the centrality of Mary and Jesus, not only for their position but also for the ecstatic looks of Sigismondo, Jerome and Francis and the gesture of the Baptist, who wants us, spectators of the painting, to focus on them.
As Sigismondo, let us entrust to Mary - in this time of pandemic - our anxieties, our fatigues, our uncertainties, our worries. By presenting them to Jesus we are certain that we can find comfort and hope.
Let us do this with the prayer that Pope Francis entrusted to all of us last April 25:
You shine continuously on our journey
as a sign of salvation and hope.
We entrust ourselves to you, Health of the Sick,
who, at the foot of the cross,
were united with Jesus’ suffering,
and persevered in your faith.
“Protectress of the Roman people”,
you know our needs,
and we know that you will provide,
so that, as at Cana in Galilee,
joy and celebration may return
after this time of trial.
Help us, Mother of Divine Love,
to conform ourselves to the will of the Father
and to do what Jesus tells us.
For he took upon himself our suffering,
and burdened himself with our sorrows
to bring us, through the cross,
to the joy of the Resurrection.
We fly to your protection,
O Holy Mother of God;
Do not despise our petitions
in our necessities,
but deliver us always
from every danger,
O Glorious and Blessed Virgin.
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)