This painting, showing the Virgin and Child enthroned between Saints Francis and Sebastian, was the central panel of an altarpiece made for a family chapel in the Franciscan church at Fabriano, in the Italian Marches. At Francis’s foot, a stout little figure in widow’s dress is being presented to the Virgin Mary: she is Oradea Becchetti, who founded the chapel. Images of the Virgin and saints were popular on altarpieces, as medieval Christians believed that they could intercede with God on behalf of sinful humanity at the Last Judgement.
Oradea was clearly proud of her commission: the inscription along the front states that she paid for the altar and the painting ‘at no small expense of her own money’. The saints, who would have been chosen by Oradea and her spiritual advisers, reflect her and their interests. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan order and patron of the church, and Sebastian was a soldier and protector against the plague.
A stout little figure in widow’s dress peers out from behind a saint’s leg. This is Oradea Becchetti, and she is being presented to the Virgin and Child by Saint Francis. The painting was the central panel of an altarpiece made for a family chapel in the Franciscan church at Fabriano, in the Italian Marches.
Oradea founded the chapel in accordance with the will of her husband Giovanni and was clearly proud of what she had achieved: the inscription along the base states that she paid for the altar and painting ‘at no small expense of her own money’. Both words and image suggest a formidable character. Crivelli has conveyed both her piety – she holds a string of prayer beads – and the determined set of her mouth and jaw.
Oradea and her husband were members of the Fabriano nobility and both from devout families. Her name means ‘pray to god’, while Giovanni’s relatives were prominent clerics and friars. The saints, chosen by Oradea and her spiritual advisers, reflect her and their interests. Francis was the founder of the Franciscan Order and patron of the church. He points to a tear in the side of his habit, showing the stigmata – wounds mimicking those of Christ, also visible on his hands and feet. Opposite him, the muscular and almost naked Saint Sebastian – his pubic hair startlingly visible – seems oblivious to the arrows which pierce him. As a soldier Sebastian was popular with medieval aristocrats, but he was also seen as a ‘plague saint’, able to protect people from the disease. The Becchettis must have been worried about plague, successive waves of which ravaged the Marches in the late fifteenth century. Their chapel was dedicated the Virgin Mary in her guise as Santa Maria della Consolatione, the Virgin of Consolation, who was particularly associated with protection from the plague.
Mary is shown as both a loving mother and Queen of Heaven. She sits on a marble throne, with a cloth of honour behind her and vases of flowers beside her – lilies and roses, standing for her purity and gentleness. Flowers are scattered at her feet and luscious fruits – Crivelli’s trademark – hang from the throne. The snail by Francis’s foot may even have been understood as a symbol of Christ’s birth to Mary, as snails were thought to reproduce asexually. But this out-of-place mollusc might just have been a trick of Crivelli’s – he loved playing games with viewers, suggesting that his paintings were both flat and three-dimensional. Here it’s not quite clear if the snail is meant to be in the painting or crawling over the surface of it.
As well as gaining credit for Oradea and her family in heaven, the altarpiece aimed to raise money for the friars who ran the church. Indulgences – a way to reduce punishment for sin in purgatory – were offered to people who gave donations on feasts of the Virgin and Saints Francis and Sebastian.
Crivelli signed the painting on the cartellino along the bottom of the throne: CAROLI CRIVELLI VENETI MILES 1491. He was knighted in 1490 by Ferdinand II of Naples and although he always signed in Latin, he was no Latin scholar. Here he has used the wrong case for miles (‘knight’).
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