This tall, narrow panel once hung over the tomb of a Franciscan holy man, the Blessed Gabriele Ferretti (d. 1456). Gabriele was Superior of the small convent of San Francesco in Alto outside Ancona in the Italian Marche. He was famous locally for his fervent piety and for his visions of the Virgin, who appears here floating in the sky in a golden mandorla (oval frame; literally ‘almond shaped’ in Italian).
The location impacted the painting’s shape and composition. It was hung around seven or eight feet above the ground, in the first left corner of the church – it would have been seen from below and to the right as you entered the building. The direction of the light, the sloping letters of Crivelli’s signature and the road’s strong slanting line all take account of this. Even the figure of Gabriele has been distorted: his head appears too large for his body when seen from straight on, but would have been correct when viewed from below.
This tall, narrow panel once hung over the tomb of a Franciscan holy man, the Blessed Gabriele Ferretti (d. 1456). Gabriele was Superior of the small priory of San Francesco in Alto outside Ancona in the Italian Marche. Although the son of a wealthy family, like Saint Francis himself he renounced their wealth and took to wearing a patched habit – a garment worn by members of a religious order –- begging for alms and publicly scourging himself. He was famous locally for his fervent piety, his devotion to the sick and his visions of the Virgin and Child.
This painting is a pala, a single panel. It shows us not the gilded glory of heaven, but events which were believed to have taken place right there in the Marche. According to his biography, at night Gabriele would retire to a wood beside the convent for prayer and meditation. It is here that we see him, dressed in the grey habit of the Observant (reformed) Franciscans. His sandals lie beside him, and an open book is on the ground before him, its pages fluttering in the breeze. To the right, a small brick building represents his own priory. A stony pathway winds its way past the church, and up the slope towards the walled towers of Ancona in the background.
Immediately beside Gabriele’s left elbow is the strangely large head of another friar who must be walking down the path towards the church. In the bottom corner, a duck and duckling paddle in small stream and a bare tree seems to grow on the near bank. Above Gabriele’s head a small bird, possibly a goldfinch, perches on the bare branch of another tree. Crivelli painted an almost identical bird next to Saint John the Baptist in the Demidoff altarpiece. These charming details drawn from nature are typical of Crivelli. Perhaps he, like some other fifteenth-century artists, used a model book with drawings of birds and animals as sources for his paintings.
So far, so ordinary. But Crivelli is painting a miracle, and the ordinary is about to be overturned dramatically. When Gabriele was meditating in his grove, the Virgin appeared to him and placed her son in his arms. It is this moment which is recorded in the painting. The Virgin is suspended in the evening sky, in a golden mandorla – an oval frame – held up by angels. She looks down at the kneeling friar, and holds out the Christ Child to Gabriele.
After Gabriele’s death in 1456 his family and brother friars tried to have him canonised. The tiny church at San Francesco was transformed into a monument to the piety and magnificence of the Ferretti family. The painting was hung over Gabriele’s tomb to advertise the miraculous visions which were his main claim to sainthood. According to a mid-eighteenth century description, it was surrounded with hundreds of silver ex-votos – small objects hung on shrines as offerings – in the shape of legs, arms, hearts and figures, left by people hoping for miraculous cures.
The location had a big impact on the painting’s shape and the composition. It was hung around seven or eight feet above the ground, in the first left corner of the church – it would have been seen from below and to the right as you entered the building. The direction of the light, the sloping letters of Crivelli’s signature and the strong slanting line of the road all take account of this. Even the figure of Gabriele has been distorted: his head appears too large for his body when seen from straight on, but would have been correct when viewed from below. Crivelli’s trademark fruits, also designed to be seen from below, hang in a swag across the front, casting an illusionistic shadow on the surface of the painting.
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