The Virgin with the Christ Child on her lap is flanked by two saints. On the left is an old bearded man, possibly Saint Jerome; he wears a ragged white robe tied around his waist with a belt made of a twisted olive branch. On the right is a younger man in the grey habit of an observant Franciscan, an austere branch of the religious order founded by Saint Francis. This is Blessed Bernardino da Feltre, a popular preacher. Instead of a full halo, a series of golden rays emanate from his head: he was not formally made a saint until 1653.
The artist, Filippo Mazzola, signed his name along the parapet behind which the holy figures stand. Although not a great painter himself, Mazzola was the father of one: Parmigianino.
The Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap is flanked by two saints. On the left is an old man with a white beard; he wears a ragged white robe tied around his waist with a belt made of a twisted olive branch. This might be Saint Jerome, although he does not have the usual cardinal’s hat of that saint, and the olive branch is puzzling.
On the right a younger man is dressed in the grey habit of an observant Franciscan, an austere branch of the mendicant religious order founded by Saint Francis; in England they were known as the Greyfriars. This is the Blessed Bernardino da Feltre, a popular Franciscan preacher and founder of the monte di pietà, a charitable credit organisation which aimed to provide the poor with an alternative to moneylenders charging extortionate interest rates. Like his namesake Bernardino of Siena, Bernardino da Feltre was enormously popular, attracting huge crowds to his sermons in which he railed against vanity, ambition and greed, and encouraged people to burn ‘vanities’ such as rich clothes, playing cards and dice. Instead of a full halo, a series of golden rays emanate from his head: he was not formally made a saint until 1653. He carries a book, turned on its side so we can see the fore-edges, on which sits a small model of the Holy Sepulchre (Christ’s tomb) with Christ in front of the Cross. There’s an inscription – ‘INRI’ – on the Cross, the abbreviation of ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’, which was pinned there during the Crucifixion.
Seemingly ordinary objects act as religious symbols here. Christ holds a small bird, a goldfinch, in his hand: a goldfinch was thought to have pulled a thorn from Christ’s forehead when he was on the way to the site of his crucifixion, and so became a symbol of the Passion. The Virgin is holding a small apple, the fruit with which Adam and Eve were tempted in the Garden of Eden, causing the Fall of Man. In medieval thought the Virgin was seen as the new Eve because she gave birth to Christ, who, through his Incarnation and Passion, brought about humanity’s salvation.
The artist, Filippo Mazzola, signed his name along the parapet behind which the holy figures stand. The picture must have been painted between Bernardino da Feltre’s death in 1494 and Mazzola’s in 1505. Mazzola came from a family of painters based in Parma and although not himself a great artist, he was the father of one: Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, known as Parmigianino, a leading Mannerist artist.
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