Crivelli painted this unusual image of the Virgin standing alone with no Christ Child for the church of San Francesco, Pergola, a little town in the north of the Italian Marche. The Virgin is depicted in a particular role, surrounded by symbols and texts that express the idea that she was conceived ‘Immaculate’ – that is, without original sin.
She stands in a marble niche against a burnished gold ground, indicating that she is in heaven. Two angels hover above her head, carrying a banner with the words, ‘As from the beginning I was conceived in the mind of God, so have I in like manner been conceived in the flesh’. At the top of the painting, God the Father looks down from the blue cloud of heaven, his right hand raised immediately above the dove of the Holy Ghost, which floats down to the Virgin on golden rays.
Crivelli painted this unusual image of the Virgin Mary standing alone with no Christ Child for the church of San Francesco, Pergola, a little town in the north of the Italian Marche. The church is still there but it is hard to tell exactly where the painting was; its tall narrow shape suggests it was in a side chapel.
The way the Virgin is shown expresses the theological doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – that is, the idea that she was born without original sin. This complicated and controversial idea was especially promoted by the Italian Franciscans. One of the side chapels of San Francesco was formerly dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, and was perhaps the original home of this painting.
Mary stands in a marble niche against a burnished gold background, indicating that she is in heaven. Her loose hair shows that she is both a virgin and a queen. Two hovering angels place a gold crown dotted with rubies and emeralds on her head. The crown has been delicately tooled into the burnished gold, as have the sun and moon on either side of her; they must have glittered in the candlelit nave of the medieval church. The angels also hold a banner on which is written, ‘As from the beginning I was conceived in the mind of God, so have I in like manner been conceived in the flesh’. These words, drawn from the Bible, state the key idea that the Virgin existed in God’s mind before she existed in the flesh.
At the top of the painting, God the Father looks down from the blue cloud of heaven, surrounded by a host of red seraphim (angels from the highest order). A richly coloured blue and green cloak flutters from his shoulders. To show off his skill at perspective, Crivelli has shown us the top of his grey head, and his dramatically foreshortened features. God’s right hand is raised immediately above the white dove of the Holy Ghost, which descends on golden rays from God to the Virgin.
Although painted with a realism more typical of Netherlandish than Italian painting of the period, many of the objects also have symbolic meaning. The red and white roses on her right stand for charity and purity: the Virgin herself was known as ‘the rose without a thorn’. The white lilies to her left in a crystal vase to her left symbolise the Incarnation of Christ, which was compared to light passing through a glass vase, while the open and closed flowers refer to the idea that Mary remained a virgin both during and after Christ’s conception and birth.
Crivelli and his patrons were clearly fascinated by clothes and fabrics: Pergola was an important centre of textile manufacture. The Virgin stands in front of a cloth of honour of pink and silver damask, a particular favourite of Crivelli. She wears a red and silver brocade dress trimmed with pearls, over which is a fantastic blue and gold brocade robe. We can even see the soles of her pink satin shoes.
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