Giovanni Battista Salvi, called Sassoferrato (1609-1685)
Madonna and Child
c. 1650
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40396

General Description

This painting was executed by G.B. Salvi, called Sassoferrato (town name of Salvi’s origin).  Sassoferrato’s style reveals a variety of influence, especially those of Domenichino, Spadarino, and the Carracci circle.  Madonna paintings have a prominent place in his work, earning him the title, “Madonna painter,” because of his “utterly exceptional talent for depicting the divine image of the Mother of Christ.” (Macé de Lčpinay)  Our painting was executed around 1650. Salvi created literally hundreds of “portraits” of Mary.

One could be tempted to say that this painting has all the trappings of Postmodern amalgamization of styles and contents.  The composition of strict symmetry points to Renaissance and classical influences.  The image of the Madonna is perfectly centered, flanked by an evenly-divided number of winged angel heads and held by a pronounced but well-balanced crescent moon.  The centered and balanced composition suggests the somewhat static character of icons, and quite clearly refers to the type of the tenderness Madonna characterized by a tender intimacy between mother and child.  However, the overall impression is one of baroque exuberance as can be seen in the profusion of clouds and cherubs, the exaggerated crescent and the sweet hues of blue and red.

The same baroque character can be detected in the variety of iconographic elements.  The crescent moon identifies this Madonna painting as Immaculata, the woman never wavering in her attachment to God, contrasting the waxing and waning moon symbol of human gullibility and inconsistency. Clouds and angels may suggest the woman of Revelation (12:1). Simultaneously, this artwork hails Our Lady of the Rosary.  This particular iconographical motif can be identified thanks to the rosary the child is holding in his hands.  It is of amber color and ends in a bouquet of roses, symbol of Mary’s motherhood.  If the amber color signifies the ultimate victory over death and evil, the red coral necklace of the child prefigures the Passion of Christ. The red coral suggests blood, and has its origin in antiquity (see Ovid, Metamorphosis 4, 745 ff).

The facial expressions of mother and child are of sweet and serene but earthly beauty. The far away and knowing look in their eyes is marked with the sad premonition of dramatic days to come. In general, Salvi’s paintings of the Madonna are considered attractive and most people would qualify them as beautiful. Was Mary a beautiful woman?

How Beautiful Was Mary?

Christian tradition is filled with witnesses and attestations to the physical beauty of Mary, notwithstanding St. Augustine’s warning: “Non novimus faciem Virginis Mariae.” (De Trin., 8,5, PL 42, 952)  St. Ambrose was more generous in attributing physical beauty to Mary, but he refers it to the beauty of her soul and sees in her outward beauty the expression of her virtues. (De Virg., lib 2,cap 2, PL 16, 220) Venantius Fortunatus offered a dazzling description of Mary’s beauty couched entirely in light symbolism. (In laudem S. Mariae Virginis, PL 88, 281)  Richard of St. Laurent ventured a detailed description of the physical aspects of her person. (De Laud B.M., lib 5, cap. 1 and 2.)  And St. Antoninus manages a scrupulous transposition of St. Albert’s aesthetic criteria to the face and body of the Virgin Mary. (ST. IV, t. XV, c.11)

These few examples and many others, some scurrilous and of bad taste, show how prominent a role Mary’s beauty has played in Christian theology and culture. Quite naturally, it spilled over and inspired sacred art. Sacred art is true and beautiful, says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, if it corresponds by its expression to its true vocation which is to evocate and give praise to the transcendent mystery of God. The Catechism offers two examples on how to bring into focus the mystery of God:  through Christ, in whom appeared the invisible beauty of truth and love, and through Mary, the angels and saints who are reflections of spiritual beauty.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 46-47.

Consult The Mary Page:  Immaculate Conception,

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