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Monday, May 21, 2007

The Madonna of Mercy

Piero della Francesca (1416/17-1492)
Polyptych of the Misericordia. 1445-62.
Mixed technique on panel. 273 x 330 cm.
Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro, Italy


Piero della Francesca (1416/17-1492)
Madonna of Mercy. Main panel of the Polyptych of the Misericordia. 1445-1462.
Mixed technique on panel. 134 x 91 cm.
Pinacoteca Comunale, Sansepolcro, Italy.


The Madonna of Misericord (Madonna of Mercy) is a devotional image expressing her votaries' faith in her as intercessor. A typical example of Madonna of Misericord is a scene where her votaries or commissioners are crowding beneath her outspread mantle.

The Misericordia Polyptych was commissioned in 1445. The contract called for it to be completed in 3 years. It took about 15 -20 years.

It stood in the Church of the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Misericordia, a group of pious laymen who performed works of charity in the town of Sansepolcro.

The centre of the work is the Madonna of Mercy (Misericordia). Her open mantle calls to mind the arch of the central panel. The great mantle open like a church apse, or as it has been described a "Bramantesque niche".

The Madonna is monumental and immobile. She opens her cloak to shelter the fervent faithful who, on their knees, pray for her mercy through their prayers.

Of the Madonna's face, Sir Kenneth Clark has written: "Piero's subtleties of tone reveal a shape remarkably like that of the finest Congo masks in the balance of convex and concave." This he qualifies however: "this head is in no way a mask. We never doubt that its formal consistency will continue all round, and it is a shock to realise that we shall never see the back."

The Virgin Mary embraces everybody: Piero himself in the most intimate part under the mantle, the unknown brother of the Compagnia, the rich man, the powerful man.

This group of figures balances perfectly the female group on the other side of the Virgin: the 15th century lady, the lower class woman, the old and the young.

About 1635 the frame, probably designed by Piero himself, was destroyed and replaced with an intricated baroque dorsal.

With the Napoleonic suppression of religious organisations at the beginning of the 19th century, the painting was split up and transferred to the church of S. Rocco.

In 1892, for the 4th centennial of Piero's death, the polypytch was exposed in the Museo Civico and was badly reconstructed putting the tables near to each other.

In 1901 it became the property of the Municipality.

In the Second World War, it was nearly destroyed as Sansepolcro was in the front line. In 1944, Anthony Clarke, the British officer in charge of the artillery, gave the order to temporarily cease fire. He had read a travel book by Aldous Huxley in which Huxley had described the Polyptych as the most beautiful painting he had ever seen. The next day the allies were able to take the town without firing a shot. Clarke then ensured the safety of the great work.

The present arrangement of the Polyptych dates from 1975. It is exposed in a special room.