School of Carracci (Antonio Carracci?)
The Virgin Offers the Child to Saint Francis
Late sixteenth – early seventeenth century
oil on copper
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40728

General Description

This painting is witness to the quality of devotional art of the past. While devotional art of the present is frequently assimilated with cheap reproductions of sometimes doubtful taste, we find in centuries past examples of popular art of refined taste and exquisite pictorial quality. This is such an example. For a long time kept in storage at the Vatican Pinacoteca and ignored by the art world, it was brought to light by Denis Mahon, great scholar of Italian baroque, in 1956. The small rendition of the Virgin offering her Child to a Franciscan saint is painted on copper, and was produced for the Franciscan faithful. Attributed to Antonio Carracci, it is noteworthy for its refinement of color and form. This is particularly true for the great beauty of the Virgin’s face, reminiscent of the Carracci style, and the unified and harmonious rendering of the complex positions of the main actors (Virgin, monk, and Christ Child). A similar harmony and delicate complementarity is found in the overall color palette.

The event shown is a popular theme in Franciscan mysticism and art. It highlights a Christocentric spirituality and is a way of saying that we should make ours the dispositions and states of life of Christ, beginning with his childhood. Mary’s role is to give us Jesus, an allusion to her motherhood and the famous saying, “Per Matrem ad Filium.” (Mary leads us to her son) The iconographic theme of the Virgin offering the Child to a Franciscan saint is not limited to Francis of Assisi (see the painting by A. Carracci whose reproductions have been widely disseminated, e.g., in art galleries of London, Detroit, Kassel, Madrid, and Rome). The same motif was later applied to other Franciscan saints, e.g., and especially to Anthony of Padua and Felix of Cantalice. The attribution in this painting is uncertain.

The Apparitions of the Virgin

In spite of prudence and strong reservation toward apparitions, sightings and visions of Mary enjoy enduring popularity. The Church even recognized some recent apparitions of Our Lady (Capua, Kibeho, Akcita, San Nicolas, Amsterdam). Apparitions of Our Lady have had a lasting impact on the arts. During the siege of Constantinople, Muselinus sees a lady descending on a cloud spreading her mantle over the ramparts of the city, making it impregnable (Cantigas, c. 1272). But this is not the only kind of apparition art has immortalized. There is the famous story of Theophilus who sold his soul to the devil, and was ransomed by Our Lady. Of similar popular fame is the legend of the Juggler of Our Lady. Being neither a scholar nor a skilled artisan, he seeks to lighten the hearts of Mother and Child with the gymnastic feats of his trade. He juggles and dances in front of the statue of Mother and Child. At the end of the performance, the baby expresses his pleasure with a round of applause. Meanwhile, Our Lady ­ with a gesture of her hand ­ commandeers an angel to bring comfort to the acrobat in the form of a towel. Our Lady dispenses her favors to the little ones, but also to the great and famous of this world. In the following painting, Mary appears to Leopold III (Ruhland Fruehauf the Younger, c. 1505), as well as to a noble lady praying in the Book of Hours and asking Our Lady for her presence at the hour of death. (Heures dites de Baudricourt, c. 1475) Most important, Mary communicates her messages to her beloved servants. This is illustrated here with the example of Saint Thomas Beckett. Mary reveals to him the Seven Joys of her life in Paradise (Livres de Prières à la Vierge, fifteenth century).

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 108-109.

For information on apparitions in general (statistics, norms, theological aspects) please consult our website, The Mary Page:

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