Painted on the wall of the Museo del Bigallo in Florence is a figure with a red mantle and white cope which rises above a cityscape represented below with majestic height and a weightlessness belonging to a spiritual being. This figure has been called the Madonna della Misericordia for many years, until William Levin, in his monograph, The Allegory of Mercy, explained that the figure is actually an allegorical representation of the mercy of God. Levin discusses the history of referring to this figure as the Madonna and as an allegory of mercy. He provides evidence to show that this figure is an allegory, and not a Madonna-figure, including pointing to the inscription in her crown which reads: misericordia domini.
This is the very heart of spiritual Florence; in 1244 the confraternity acquired land here, and commissioned a fresco to decorate the exterior wall, inside the loggia, which, although privately-owned space belonging to the confraternity, it is open to the public. It provides shade from the Tuscan sun, hot on the piazza, and would have seen a good deal of foot traffic, accordingly. It is in this public space that the confraternity elected to locate a fresco that embodies the very essence of their organization.
What did the Florentine Misericordia organization choose as subject matter for their public face – the public face of a group that had acquired some of the most valuable real estate in Florence, and was establishing its importance and central role in the spiritual institution of the city for the next 600+ years? What better than to portray the very same city of Florence in her piety? The fresco is a mirror held up to the citizenry: it is a reflection of the merciful works being done in the city of Florence by her citizens. Due to the public nature of its location, there is a clear dialogue between the fresco and the city; between the confraternity of the Misericordia and the community that it serves. The fact that the fresco was a public piece of art representing the public face of the confraternity, and not a semi-public or private piece, kept indoors, illustrates the protagonism which the city holds in these dealings, as well as the sense of self-fashioning, of conscious definition of self, the confraternity, as agent for good, for virtue. The fresco represents spiritual Florence, and portrays Florence as a city of pious citizens in which mercy is a celebrated virtue. The Misericordia confraternity members are included amongst a representative group of virtuous Florentine citizens, under the motto that appears as the text of the upper central roundel, the first of the roundels on the Misericordia figure, reading: misericordia dei plena est terra. The rest of the series of roundels on the figure help to clarify how the virtue of mercy should be practiced by the citizens. Overall, the initial impression related by the fresco is that of a virtuous city, dedicated to works of mercy.
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