Tuscan School
The Madonna Intercedes for the Souls in Purgatory
early seventeenth century
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 42523

General Description


This densely populated painting rendered with great attention to detail centers on the theme of the purgatory. This theme became prevalent after the Council of Trent (see Decree on Purgatory, 1563), and was frequently painted in Counter-Reformation art. The painting highlights the reality of purgatory and suppliant souls, whose liberation is due to the intercession of Mary and the saints. As can be noticed, Mary – here pictured in heaven and surrounded by six saints – is holding the one who is mediator before God and for humanity. The child is large, an allusion to the Christ-Man triumphant over death and descending into the netherworld to save the souls of the just. Although majestically seated on clouds, it is not the Madonna but the Christ Child with his hand raised (see the Christ Judge of the Sistine Chapel) who absolves the souls in purgatory. The angel, geographically linking heaven and purgatory, executes Christ’s orders by freeing one of the “poor souls.”

Mary’s role is that of advocate and intercessor. Mary’s role as helper has many titles, and the stories of her intervention are countless (see, e.g., the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine). She is approached as helper in childbirth, as healer, giver of grace, protector, and saver of souls. The painting of Mary’s Advocacy with Christ (c. 1400) in the Cathedral of Florence points to the rightful order and hierarchy of intercession. Mary points to her role as mother (breast and milk) interceding with Christ for her devotees. He, in turn, points to the wound in his side, underscoring his role as savior. In response the Father sends his Spirit, sign of mercy and grace. In post-reformation art, this strict hierarchy of intercession became somewhat blurred, attributing to Mary a role of frequently exaggerated power. In this painting, Mary is not alone to intercede. She is surrounded by saints who participate in the work of intercession. From left to right, we can make out the following saints and their attributes:

Anthony of Padua-Franciscan habit/lily
Eligius Bishop-Crosier /Hammer
 Jude of Thaddeus-Halberd    
 Francis of Assisi-Posture of Adoration
Saint Dominic-Black & White habit/lily
 Ignatius of Loyola-Cassock/lily

Mother and Child

Saints are sometimes indicative of provenance and origin of paintings. Saint Eligius, a Provençal bishop, was a popular saint in the Rome of the seventeenth century! One of his relics – he lived in the sixth century – was brought to Rome in 1628. He may be a key to the dating of this small painting. Its rich but soft, and contrasting shades are suggestive of Tuscany and an artist close to the style of Francesco Corradi (1570-1661) in Florence.

In the course of time, Christian art has developed a catalog of symbols to identify the many saints of the Catholic Church thanks to a specific and concrete object called attribute. Saint Mark, the evangelist, is accompanied by a winged lion; Saint Bernadette is featured kneeling in a grotto (Lourdes grotto); Robert of Molesme holds a plate with strawberries in his hand. These attributes highlight special events, achievements, or virtues of the saints. In this painting, Saint Jude is featured with a halberd to identify him as a martyr brought to death by a halberd. Saint Eligius is featured with crosier and hammer to indicate two important stations of his life:  he was a goldsmith for the Frankish kings (hammer) before he became bishop of Noyon (crosier).

Purgatory or Final Purification

The Catechism of the Catholic Church  describes Purgatory as follows:

1030-All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031-The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire (1 Corinthians 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7).

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the final judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (Saint Gregory the Great, Dial. 4,39; PL 77i 396).

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 102-103.

For poetry on Our Lady of Mercy and Purgatory, see The Mary Page: campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/poetry/november.html  

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