A large class of these Madonna pictures are votive offerings for public or private mercies. They present some most interesting varieties of character and arrangement.
A votive Mater Misericordiæ, with the Child in her arms, is often standing with her wide ample robe extended, and held up on each side by angels. Kneeling at her feet are the votaries who have consecrated the picture, generally some community or brotherhood instituted for charitable purposes, who, as they kneel, present the objects of their charity widows, orphans, prisoners, or the sick and infirm. The Child, in her arms, bends forward with the hand raised in benediction. I have already spoken of the Mater Misericordiæ without the Child. The sentiment is yet more beautiful and complete where the Mother of Mercy holds the infant Redeemer, the representative and pledge of God’s infinite mercy, in her arms.
There is a ” Virgin of Mercy,” by Salvator Rosa, which is singular and rather poetical in the conception. She is seated in heavenly glory ; the infant Christ, on her knee, bends benignly forward. Tutelary angels are represented as pleading for mercy, with eager outstretched arms; other angels, lower down, are liberating the souls of repentant sinners from torment. The expression in some of the heads, the contrast between the angelic pitying spirits and the anxious haggard features of the Anime del Purgatorio, are very fine and animated. Here the Virgin is the ” Refuge of Sinners,” Refugium Peecatoram. Such pictures are commonly met with in chapels dedicated to services for the dead.
Another class of votive pictures are especial acts of thanksgiving, -1st. For victory, as La Madonna della Vittoria, Notre Dame des Victoires. The Virgin, on her throne, is then attended by one or more of the warrior saints, together with the patron or patroness of the victors. She is then our Lady of Victory. A very perfect example of these victorious Madonnas exists in a celebrated picture by Andrea Mantegna. The Virgin is seated on a lofty throne, embowered by garlands of fruit, leaves, and flowers, and branches of coral, fancifully disposed as a sort of canopy over her head. The Child stands on her knee, and raises his hand in the act of benediction. On the right of the Virgin appear the warlike saints, St. Michael and St. Maurice ; they recommend to her protection the Marquis of Mantua, Giovanni Francesco Gonzaga, who kneels in complete armor.’ On the left stand St. Andrew and St. Longinus, the guardian saints of Mantua; on the step of the throne the young St. John the Baptist, patron of the Marquis ; and, more in front, a female figure, seen half length, which some have supposed to be St. Elizabeth, the mother’ of the Baptist, and others, with more reason, the wife of the Marquis, the accomplished Isabella d’Este. This picture was dedicated in celebration of the victory gained by Gonzaga over the French, near Fornone, in 1495.1 There is something exceedingly grand, and, at the same time, exceedingly fantastic and poetical, in the whole arrangement ; and besides its beauty and historical importance, it is the most important work of Andrea Mantegna. Gonzaga, who is the hero of the picture, was a poet as well as a soldier. Isabella d’Este shines conspicuously, both for virtue and talent, in the history of the revival of Art during the fifteenth century. She was one of the first who collected gems, antiques, pictures, and made them available for the study and improvement of the learned. Altogether, the picture is most interesting in every point of view. It was carried off by the French from Milan in 1797; and considering the occasion on which it was painted, they must have had a special pleasure in placing it in their Louvre, where it still remains.
There is a very curious and much more ancient Madonna of this class preserved at Siena, and styled the ” Madonna del Voto.” The Sienese, being at war with Florence, placed their city under the protection of the Virgin, and made a solemn vow that, if victorious, they would make over their whole territory to her as a perpetual possession, and hold it from her as her loyal vassals. After the victory of Arbia, which placed Florence itself for a time in such imminent danger, a picture was dedicated by Siena to the Virgin della Vittoria. She is enthroned and crowned, and the infant Christ, standing on her knee, holds in his hand the deed of gift.
2dly. For deliverance from plague and pestilence, those scourges of the middle ages. In such pictures the Virgin is generally attended by St. Sebastian, with St. Roch or St. George, sometimes, also, by St. Cosmo and St. Damian, all of them protectors and healers in time of sickness and calamity. These intercessors are often accompanied by the patrons of the church or locality.
There is a remarkable picture of this class in the Siena Academy, by Matteo di Giovanni [or Matteo da Siena], in which the Virgin and Child are throned between St. Sebastian and St. George, while St. Cosmo and St. Damian, dressed as physicians, and holding their palms, kneel before the throne.
In a famous picture by Titian (Rome, Vatican), the Virgin and Child are seated in heavenly glory. She has a smiling and gracious expression, and the Child holds a garland, while angels scatter flowers. Below stand St. Sebastian, St. Nicholas, St. Catherine, St. Peter, and St. Francis. The picture was an offering to the Virgin, after the cessation of a pestilence at Venice, and consecrated in a church of the Franciscans dedicated to St. Nicltolas.
Another celebrated votive picture against pestilence is Correggio’s ” Madonna di San Sebastiano.” (Dresden Gallery.) She is seated in heavenly glory, with little angels, not so much adoring as sporting and hovering round her ; below are St. Sebastian and St. Roch, the latter asleep. (There would be an impropriety in exhibiting St. Roch sleeping but for the reference to the legend, that, while he slept, an angel healed him, which lends the circumstance a kind of poetical beauty.) St. Sebastian, bound, looks up on the other side. The introduction of St. Geminiano, the patron of Modena, shows the picture to have been painted for that city, which had been desolated by pestilence in 1512. The date of the picture is 1515.
We may then take it for granted, that wherever the Virgin and Child appear attended by St. Sebastian and St. Roch, the picture has been a votive offering against the plague ; and there is something touching in the number of such memorials which exist in the Italian churches. (See Sacred and Legendary Art, pp. 404, 419.)
The brotherhoods instituted in most of the towns of Italy and Germany for attending the sick and plague-stficken in times of public calamity were placed under the protection of the Virgin of Mercy, St. Sebastian, and St. Roch ; and many of these pictures were dedicated by such communities, or by the municipal authorities of the city or locality. There is a memorable example in a picture by Guido, painted by command of the Senate of Bologna, after the cessation of the plague which desolated the city in 1630. (Academy, Bologna.) The benign Virgin, with her Child, is seated in the skies ; the rainbow, symbol of peace and reconciliation, is under her feet. The infant Christ, lovely and gracious, raises his right hand in the act of blessing ; in the other lie holds a branch of olive : angels scatter flowers around. Below stand the guardian saints, the ” Santi Protettori” of Bologna : St. Petronius, St. Fran-cis, St. Dominick ; the warrior-martyrs St. Proculus and St. Florian, in complete armor ; with St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. Below these is seen, as if through a dark cloud and diminished, the city of Bologna, where the dead are borne away in carts and on biers. The upper part of this famous picture is most charming for the gracious beauty of the expression, the freshness and delicacy of the color. The lower part is less happy, though the head of St. Francis, which is the portrait of Guido’s intimate friend and executor, Saulo Guidotti, can hardly be exceeded for intense and lifelike truth. The other figures are deficient in expression, and the execution hurried, so that on the whole it is inferior to the votive Pietà already described. Guido, it is said, had no time to prepare a canvas or cartoons, and painted the whole on a piece of white silk. It was carried in grand procession, and solemnly dedicated by the Senate, whence it obtained the title by which it is celebrated in the history of Art, “I1 Pallione del Voto.”
3dly. Against inundations, flood, and fire, St. George is the great protector. This saint, and St. Barbara, who is patroness against thunder and tempest, express deliverance from such calamities, when in companionship.
The “Madonna di San Giorgio ” of Correggio (Dresden Gallery) is a votive altar-piece dedicated on the occasion of a great inundation of the river Secchia. She is seated on her throne, and the Child looks down on the worshippers and votaries. St. George stands in front victorious, his foot on the head of the dragon. The introduction of St. Geminiano tells us that the picture was painted for the city of Modena; the presence of St. John the Baptist and St. Peter Martyr shows that it was dedicated by the Dominicans, in their church of St. John. (See Legends of the Monastic Orders.)