Something About Mary

October 1, 2003
The Madonna Interceding for Souls in Purgatory

 The Madonna Interceding for Souls in Purgatory
1762-1769
Francesco Fontebasso
Oil on canvas
41 x 22.25 inches
Duke University Museum of Art purchase, 2001

 

The painter behind The Madonna Interceding for Souls in Purgatory is Francesco Fontebasso, an eighteenth-century Venetian artist who studied with Sebastiano Ricci and Giambattista Tiepolo and specialized in ceiling frescoes.

Here we see the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a dove) at the top center and left of the painting. Mary, just below on the right, is pleading for the souls of the sinners in Purgatory to be rescued and brought up to Heaven. Images of Mary's intercession proliferated in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Catholic art during the Counter Reformation, following the Council of Trent in 1545-1563, which upheld a belief in the existence of Purgatory. Earlier in the eighteenth century, painters often depicted Mary with the Christ child on her lap, reaching to the souls below. It is unusual, however, to see Mary with the Holy Trinity, as Fontebasso has illustrated, with a hierarchy of authority reaffirmed, perhaps indicating a renewed concern that Mary was being given too much power.

Fontebasso was familiar with Dante's Purgatorio, having made book engravings a decade earlier for a 1757 Venetian edition of the Divine Comedy. In this painting, the mountain at the bottom may depict one of Dante's scenes of Purgatory; likewise, the naked woman in the flames covering her breasts fits with Dante's particular vision of Purgatory. According to Dante, the uppermost level of Purgatory was the only level on fire and was reserved for those who had committed crimes of lust.

Fontebasso appears to have included a portrait of Dante himself, wearing his laurel wreath, in the flames of Purgatory in the lower left background. Given its high finish and intimate size, as well as the small scale of the figures, the painting was probably a private commission.