From Art History to popular tradition, here is why the Madonna fully represents Italy...
On December 8th Italy celebrates l'Immacolata Concezione, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church according to which the Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin. The proclaimed Roman Catholic dogma states "that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin" (from Encyclical Ineffabilis Deus, proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on December 8th 1854). Original sin is the belief that each human being comes into existence tainted by the act of procreation of his parents. Baptism, not only welcomes the child into the Christian faith, but also erases said sin and the child can then start afresh. In the Virgin Mary’s case, her always beeing free from original sin, signifies that from the start, and until the end, she was filled with sanctifying Grace. he was from the start filled with the sanctifying grace that believers would normally acquire with baptism after birth.
The Annunciation, Fra Angelico
The iconography of the Virgin Mary in the Western World is to be found back to the half of Century III, in Priscilla catacombs in Rome, where there is the oldest Marian painting known up to the present day to these days. There was a diffusion of the cult of Mary after the Council of Ephesus in 431, when her status was confirmed as Theotokos (from ancient Greek, "God-bearer"), but the triumph of Holy Mary’s representation happens much later in the XIII-XIV Century with Giotto, Cimabue, Simone Martini, Duccio di Buoninsegna. During this period we find a more human representation of the Madonna. Among the most famous ones, la Madonna del Parto (Madonna in Labour), a fresco by Piero della Francesca in Monterchi chapel (Arezzo) that shows a pregnant Madonna, between two angels, who touches her womb.
Madonna in Labour, Piero della Francesca
Other representations included the Madonna del latte (Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the Milk Madonna, 1324), a subject that inspired later on Jean Fouquet (the Virgin and the Child), Leonardo Da Vinci (Madonna Litta) and Caravaggio (Madonna dello Svezzamento). But the Council of Trent (1543) established once for all that the condemnation on Church’s part of any sensual image of Madonna (like the ones with the chest uncovered), that was from then on considered inappropriate. At the end the Council (1563), the Counterreformation, Controriforma, put in act by the Church in juxtaposition to the Protestant Reformation, established - among many other precepts directed to reinforce the power of the Catholic Church - that the iconography of Madonna was officially bond with the concept of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. From the XV Century to the XVII Century the iconic depiction of the Virgin enthroned carrying the infant Christ was established especially in Italy, where Christianity - as a subject and tradition of the Country - retained a strong hold on the artists of those times, influencing their works.
Madonna of the Grand Duke, Raffaello Sanzio
Among the many representations, the Madonna with the Sleeping Child (1465 circa) by Andrea Mantegna (now at Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan), the Sistina Madonna by Raffaello (1513-1514), the Madonna with the Child (la zingarella) by Tiziano (1512), the Madonna dal collo lungo (1534, the Madonna with the long neck) by Parmigianino. The subject was popular in Early Netherlandish paintings, too. Another popular subject is the Madonna del Roseto (the Rosegarden Madonna), like the one of Botticelli (1469-70), who also painted the beautiful Madonna del Libro (the Madonna of the Book, 1480-81, museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan) and the Madonna della Melograna (the Pomegranate Madonna). Another iconographic topic is the one of the Madonna della Misericordia, usually represented standing without the Child and the long arms open to protect. Among the most famous masterpieces, the Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca (1460).
Aldobrandini Madonna, Raffaello Sanzio
Mostly, the focus of these works remained on the maternal bond, no matter how it was represented, although especially after the Council of Trent the Madonna was represented often alone during the Annunciation and the Immaculate Conception. The Pietà by Michelangelo (1497-1499) was a ground-breaking masterpiece that proved how the Madonna could represent a physical entity, a mother “in flesh and bones” expressing grief for her son's loss through her body and face, a real grief in which everyone could identify.
It is impossible to talk about the Madonna without mentioning Milan, the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy. The city, in fact, is towered by the Madonnina, a golden bronzed statue by Giuseppe Perego placed on the highest steeple of Duomo Cathedral (the fourth largest cathedral in the world). The Madonna became then the symbol of the city, so much so that to her is dedicated the song in Milanese dialect "Oh mia bela Madunina" (Oh my beautiful Madonna), written in 1935 by Giovanni d'Anzi.
The Mystic Marriage Of St Catherine Of Siena With Eight Saints, Fra Bartolommeo
But the Madonna is a strong presence nowadays throughout all of Italy, representing a protective force and the most important feminine Saint of Catholic religion (one of the biggest differences between Catholics and Protestants is that the latter don't recognize the Madonna as a religious entity to be honored). There are many different occasions to celebrate the Madonna (there are many kinds of Madonna depending on the towns), and although they are all different because of the local tradition they carry with them, they all usually involve a night (usually, but it could also be during the day) procession of people dressed up, carrying – sometimes for a very long way – a large statue representing the Madonna adorned with lights and candles and a Mass. Once the procession ends then fireworks are lit and typical local food is prepared for all.
If the Madonna certainly was originally perceived as a religious icon in the past centuries, it has now become throughout the years a symbol of Italy and of its different local traditions. Traditions are what make Italy so special to all the foreign people who visit it every day and who certainly don’t mind about the fact that the borders between religion and secularism are blurred, as long as the beauty of this Country stays the same: crystal clear stunning.
Written by: Elisa della Barba