Sicilian Madonna (Madonna Siciliana)
Seventeenth century
oil on copper
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 44859

General Description

This icon is representative of the so-called “Madonna Siciliana,” combining Byzantine influence with Western art.  It is the product of Albanian immigrant painters who fled their country in the wake of the Ottoman conquest.  The personalized facial expressions, the Putti, the figures in Purgatory, and the splendid garment and jewelry worn by the Madonna are of Western provenance.  The basic iconographic type is that of the Tenderness Madonna (Eleousa) with the special characteristic of the Glykophilousa (loving sweetness).  Indeed, the faces of Mother and Son are drawn together and touch (Eleousa/Tenderness), and the right hand of the child lovingly caresses the chin of the mother (loving sweetness/Glykophilousa).

From the hand of the Madonna hangs the brown or Carmelite scapular. It owes its origin to Saint Simon Stock, an English Carmelite, who had a vision of Our Lady on July 16, 1251.  She gave him the brown scapular and promised that whoever died wearing it would not suffer the punishment of hell, and quickly be released from purgatory.  This is called the “Sabbatine Privilege.” The scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the oldest and best known of the Marian scapulars. Its artistic rendering in connection with the souls in purgatory appears in Sicily at the end of the fifteenth century before spreading to other regions.

Another characteristic of Sicilian art of that period is the dark complexion of Mother and Child. It is believed that the dark skin color points to the Eastern origins of some of the old and venerated images (i.e., the so-called black Madonna of Tindari), and that they may reflect the well-known expression found in the Song of Songs:  “Nigra sum, sed formosa.” (I am black but beautiful) (1:5) But there are other explanations.

The Scapular Devotion

Originally the scapular was a strip of fabric with a hole inserted in the middle, and it was used as protection of the monk’s habit when he worked in the fields. The word scapular derives its origin from the Latin word for shoulder, since the garment hung from the shoulder. The scapular was reduced in size when religious orders asked their lay members (Third Orders) to wear the scapular. Eventually, the scapular was made up of two small double squares of clothe (two or three square inches), suspended from the shoulders by two cords. By the sixteenth century, the wearing of a scapular was very popular. It symbolized fellowship with others in dedication to a spiritual cause and God ’s protection through the intercession of the church or a saint. The most popular scapulars are:

                                              * the white scapular of the Trinity
                                              * the red scapular of Christ’s Passion
                                              * the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel
                                              * the black scapular of Our Lady of Sorrows
                                              * the blue scapular of the Immaculate Conception

Interesting Iconographic Details

1) The Crowning of the Image:  examples showing the crowning of Marian images can be traced back to Pope Gregory III (731-741). The custom developed in the fourteenth century and spread during the time of the Counter-Reformation. For more information, consult The Mary Page:

2) The Star is one of the customary three stars ornating Marian icons, and refers to her total dedication to the Holy Trinity and her virginity.

3) For information on the origin of Black Madonnas, and their geographic dissemination consult The Mary Page:

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 84-85.


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