This painting served as the high altarpiece of the Franciscan church of S. Guglielmo in Ferrara. It was commissioned by the sisters of the convent, who were followers of Saint Clare of Assisi. Known as Poor Clares, they were the female branch of the Franciscan Order.
The infant Christ sits on his mother’s lap on a raised throne, surrounded by saints associated with the Franciscan Order. Saint Clare is the nun standing to the Virgin’s right.The warrior saint in the foreground in the position of greatest honour is Saint William of Aquitaine (Guglielmo in Italian). Saint Francis stands on the Virgin’s left. Behind him is Saint Anthony of Padua, who was one of the first Franciscan saints.
The twisting movement of Christ in the Virgin’s lap reflects his pose in Raphael’s Madonna del Foligno (Vatican Museums, Rome) painted in about 1511. Garofalo had probably studied Raphael’s paintings when he was in Rome in 1512.
The infant Christ sits on his mother’s lap on a raised throne beneath a canopy. They are surrounded by saints associated with the Franciscan Order, in an informal grouping around the Madonna and child known as a sacra conversazione. The twisting movement of Christ in the Virgin’s lap reflects his pose in Raphael’s Madonna del Foligno (Vatican Museums, Rome) painted in about 1511. The gilt metal finials of the Virgin’s throne that resemble giant tassels are painted in a similar way to the giant acorn finials in Raphael’s Portrait of Julius II. Garofalo had probably studied Raphael’s paintings when he was in Rome in 1512.
The warrior saint in the foreground on the Virgin’s right in the position of greatest honour is Saint William of Aquitaine (Guglielmo in Italian). William (1099–1137), 10th Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitou, was a cruel, impious and delinquent ruler until Saint Bernard frightened him into adopting a life of penitence. Later it was said that remorse had driven William to the Holy Land and then to a life of extreme austerity in Italy, but his story may have been confused with those of Italian saints Guglielmo di Gellone (about 755–812/14) and Guglielmo di Malavalle (d. 1157). It was probably the latter who was the original titular saint of S. Guglielmo in Ferrara, although Garofalo’s patrons must have supposed that their Guglielmo was the Duke of Aquitaine.
Saint Clare stands behind Saint Guglielmo. She was a beautiful virgin of noble birth from Assisi who disobeyed her family by rejecting all marriage proposals and devoting herself to a religious life. She obtained the protection of Saint Francis and founded the female branch of the Franciscan Order, the Poor Clares. Usually she is shown holding a palm – a reference to the one given to her by Saint Francis. We do not know of any other picture in which Saint Clare contemplates a Crucifix. The Virgin, who looks down to the right in the direction of Saint Clare’s Crucifix, may have the infant Christ’s future sacrifice on her mind.
Saint Francis stands on the Virgin’s left and opens his habit to reveal the wound in his side. There is a less visible nail hole in his hand. These wounds are known as ‘stigmata’ and correspond to the crucifixion wounds of Christ. Behind Saint Francis stands Saint Anthony of Padua, who was a theologian and preacher and one of the first Franciscan saints. He was originally from Portugal but died in Padua and his miracle-working shrine was erected there.
The silk hangings of the throne canopy have been opened and gathered up to reveal a velvet cloth-of-gold. This type of cloth of honour is more commonly found in Netherlandish paintings than Italian ones, for example in Memling’s The Virgin and Child with an Angel.
Documents record that Antonio Costabili, one of the most powerful men in Ferrara during this period, intervened to ensure that Garofalo would be given extra payment and a hog’s head of wine for this altarpiece because he had done such a good job.
The present lunette was added to the top of the panel by the restorer Molteni in Milan in 1861 to replace an earlier superstructure that was probably also not original.
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