Under Her Protection (Mater Misericordiae)


Claudio Ridolfi (1570-1644)
Madonna Crowned with the Christ Child and Angels
oil on canvas (stretched on panel)
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 44944

General Description

This painting was originally located above the entrance of San Onofrio in Rome.  The Church belonged to the convent of the order of Saint Jerome and harbors a rich harvest of seventeenth century artworks, among them works by Domenichino.  Originally attributed to him, our lunette (small crescent moon) was later identified as a painting by Claudio Ridolfi.  It can be dated to the year 1600, thanks to the inscription in the lower left corner which specifies “in the year of the jubilee 1600.”  Jubilees are opportunities for spiritual renewal and special gifts of grace (indulgences). Proclaimed for the first time in 1300 (Boniface VIII), they were to be offered to the faithful every hundred years.  The long time interval was progressively shortened to fifty (Clemens VI, 1343), thirty-three (Urban VI, 1389), and finally twenty-five years (Paul II, 1470).

Claudio Ridolfi was a religious painter who put his art in the service of the reform of the Church. This may explain in part the simple narrative and pedagogical intent of this painting.  In doing so, he was probably influenced by his master’s Madonna and Child in the altarpiece for the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice.  Indeed, Ridolfi was the disciple of Paolo Veronese, who repeatedly used the motif of the Mater Misericordiae in his religious paintings.  Ridolfi shows the crowned Madonna and Child wrapped in a regal cape held by two angel heads.  The group of Mother and Child is flanked by two prostrate angels.  The Mother holds the child offering it to the onlookers in a gesture of generosity.  Veil and mantle have often been used by artists to identify Mary as Protectress, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady of the Mantle, and Our Lady of Succor.

Under Her Protection

We find the idea of help expressed by Mary’s veil in early Byzantine icons, especially in the icon of the Blachernae.  In the Apparition of the Virgin (see left), the mother of God spreads her veil over the city of Constantinople and the people assembled in the Church of the Blachernae (seventeenth century).  Her gesture is a sign of protection.

During the Gothic period, the theme of protection found a new expression in the image of the Madonna with the protective mantle. Making use of her “mantle right” (giving shelter to “outlaws” and refugees by putting the mantle around them), she spreads her mantle against fear and need, and envelops the faithful of all social classes and walks of life in her protective cloak (Johannes Rueland, 1471).

The portal of the Abbey of Mercy in Venice (Abbazia della Misericordia) was decorated at one time with this stone relief by Bartolomeo Duon.  It shows Mary as Platyteca (Christ in the mandarla) covering with her cloak a group of monks.  The large mantle is held together by the Christ Child featured in the mandarla. He is the ultimate source of protection.

The of Our Lady of the Mantle did not evolve into Baroque and more recent periods.  Here is what is left of it on a holy card hailing the Madonna Aparecida as Protectress of Brazil. She is surrounded by the coat of arms of the federal states.

One of the most popular images of protection and help is the Maria-Hilf painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).  It largely replaced – together with the image of Perpetual help – the representation of Our Lady of What is left is a protective gauze-like veil Mother and Son just as in Ridolfi’s representation of the same theme.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary,  pp.82-83.

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