03. Early Europe & Colonial Americas, Art & Humanities, Christianity, Religion

Pestilence & Prayer: Madonna della Misericordia (7)

Pestilence & Prayer: Madonna della Misericordia (7)

See previous thesis post: Pestilence & Prayers: St. Sebastian in Art (6)

A variation of the sacra conversazione formula is the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). The role of the Virgin as an intercessor between God and man is a common theme in medieval art. The plagued-themed Misericordias show the Virgin standing, her arms spread wide holding a cloak or mantle, under which she shields saints and donors from the falling arrows. Although the Virgin Mary is the central figure in the Misericordias, St. Sebastian is a prominent and reoccurring saint.

Benedetto Bonfigli’s Madonna della Misericordia shows the Virgin shielding citizens from plague-arrows with her cloak. The angels flying above look militant, wielding swords and Christ is holding sharp arrows in his hands. There are a multitude of saints surrounding the Virgin, assisting her to protect the people below: specifically Sts. Bernardino of Siena, Peter Martyr, and Sebastian. St. Sebastian appears full of arrows, kneeling in prayer and gazing up at Christ. In the foreground, below the Virgin and saints, an angel torments citizens of a walled city and bodies are strewn across the earth.

A similar plagued-themed artwork by Bonfigli is the Il Gonfalone Madonna delle Grazie. It follows a parallel format as the Madonna della Misericordia and was created in the same city, Perugia, only six years afterwards. In the Gonfalone Madonna the Virgin stands protecting supplicants and with two angels and Christ overhead, while a city is shown below, but the saints have altered slightly from the previous painting. The only saints accompanying the Virgin are Sebastian and Nicholas of Tolentino; they are both in very similar praying poses. It can be suggested that these Misericordias became so formula-like due to the rapid succession in which the artworks were needed during plague outbreaks.

Next thesis blog post: St. Sebastian, arrows, and his intercession (8)


  • DesOrmeaux, Anna L. “The Black Death and Its Effect on Fourteenth and Fifteenth-Century Art”. MA diss., Louisiana University, 2007.
  • Hall, James. Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2008.
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