Francesco Francia, The Pietà
The Buonvisi Altarpiece
This altarpiece was painted for the Buonvisi Chapel in the church of S. Frediano in Lucca. It shows the Virgin Mary with her mother, Saint Anne, and the infant Christ enthroned and surrounded by saints, from left to right: Saint Sebastian, Saint Paul, Saint Lawrence and Saint Benedict.
In the main panel, the young Virgin sits holding her baby, thinking about his future sacrifice. The scene carved on the pillar behind her head represents the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 2), when God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last moment supplied a lamb instead. In Francia’s altarpiece, the infant John the Baptist’s banner reads ‘ECCE AGNUS DEI’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God’). His message is that Christ must be sacrificed but that no lamb will be exchanged in his place.
In the semicircular panel above the main panel, the elderly Virgin grieves over the lifeless body of her son who has been sacrificed for the salvation of mankind.
This altarpiece was painted for the Buonvisi Chapel in the church of S. Frediano in Lucca. It shows the Virgin Mary with her mother, Saint Anne, and the infant Christ enthroned and surrounded by saints. On the left are Saint Sebastian, shot with arrows, and Saint Paul, and on the right are Saint Lawrence, holding the gridiron on which he was martyred, and Saint Benedict, wearing white monastic robes.
The Buonvisi family from Lucca had an international banking business and also traded, especially in silk. Members of the family held important political roles in Lucca and also represented the city on diplomatic missions. The Buonvisi had offices in Naples, Venice, Genoa, Lyons, Tours, Louvain, Antwerp and London.
Three of the saints represented in Francia’s altarpiece are the name saints of members of the Buonvisi family: the patron who commissioned the altarpiece, Benedetto (1450–1513); his brother, Paolo (died 1484); and their father, Lorenzo (died 1451). Saint Sebastian, who was often invoked against the plague, may have been included because plague broke out in Lucca in 1510, about the time the altarpiece was painted.
The two elements of this altarpiece – the main panel and the lunette (the semicircular panel above it) – are carefully connected both in terms of theme and composition. In the main panel, the young Virgin sits holding her baby, thinking about the future sacrifice of her son. This is suggested by the scene carved on the pillar behind her head, which represents the sacrifice of Isaac from the Old Testament (Genesis 22: 2). God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his faith but at the last moment supplied a lamb to replace Isaac on the sacrificial altar. In Francia’s altarpiece, the infant John the Baptist strides before the Virgin’s throne pointing up towards the infant Christ and the lunette above. He carries a banner that reads ‘ECCE AGNUS DEI’, meaning ‘Behold the Lamb of God’. His message is that Christ must be sacrificed but that no lamb will be exchanged in his place.
In the lunette we see the Virgin again, now old and resembling her own mother. She grieves over the lifeless body of her son who has been sacrificed for the salvation of mankind, a scene known as a pietà. The bright red drapery worn by Saint Paul in the main panel leads our eye to the dress of the Virgin and then up to the praying angel in the lunette above.
In 1891, the main part of the altarpiece was transferred from its wooden panel to a canvas to preserve it. The lunette remains on the wooden panel on which it was originally painted, although the spandrels are later additions to make the painting easier to display as a rectangular picture when it was shown in a gallery. In both paintings there are wide cracks that developed as the paint was drying and where paint has subsequently been lost. This is particularly so in the areas of orange or red drapery. To disguise the damage, both pictures have been extensively repainted, and some of the old repainting is now becoming more visible as it discolours.