Centerpiece of the Misericordia Polyptch by Piero della Francesca, 1445-1461
Reading about this altarpiece in The Healing Presence of Art by Richard Cork, I was struck that such an image is what our new Pope Francis has been trying to convey as the challenge of mercy before the church today. The Holy Father has been calling upon both clergy and laity to extend themselves, not just their money, but their hearts to the poor and the suffering.
Piero della Francesca was commissioned to paint the altarpiece in 1445 for the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Misericordia, one of the oldest and most powerful confraternities devoted to the care of the poor and community in Piero's home town of Sansepolcro, Italy.
As Cork relates: "The advent of the Black Death transformed the confraternity's aims. Before then, the Misericordia had focused its works of mercy on impoverished people and housed them, rent-free, in 'hospices for the poor.' But when the plague struck [1340s], the confraternity realized that they should learn to encompass the needs of the community as a whole. Aided by hundreds of bequests from Sansepolcro's wealthier inhabitants, the Ospedale della Misericordia swiftly expanded to cope with the town's accelerating economic problems in the early decades of the fifteenth century. By the time Piero began work on the Misericordia commission, hardship within the town was approaching the crisis point. In response the confraternity strove to perform the seven acts of mercy defined by Christ as necessary preparation for salvation. Diane Cole has described how the Misericordia 'distributed alms and food to the sick. It succoured foundlings, ministered to condemned prisoners, and provided lodging and food to indigent pilgrims who came to Sansepolcro. Perhaps a new altarpiece for its church was deemed essential to serve the Misericordia and its growing constituencies within the town.'"
At the center of Piero's altarpiece is the Virgin Mary opening her cape in protection to the people of the town, believed to be leaders of the confraternity, including one hooded flagellant. Above Mary is the image of Christ on the cross, with Mary and Saint John the Beloved in grief below. In the middle layer are Archangel Gabriel with Mary on the other side to signify the Annunciation. Flanking them are Saint Francis (on the right) and Saint Benedict (on the left). It was this configuration that reminded me of the themes in the homilies and statements of our new Pope.
"I thought of wars .... and Francis (of Assisi) is the man of peace, and that is how the name entered my heart, Francis of Assisi, for me he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects others." -- Pope Francis
Flanking the Mother of Mercy are Saint Sebastian and John the Baptist on the left and Saint John the Evangelist and Bernardino of Siena on the right. Along the lowest layer of the altarpiece are scenes from Christ's Passion: the agony in the garden, the flagellation, the entombment, the empty tomb, and Christ's miraculous encounter with Mary Magdalene. The insignia of the confraternity is at the two lower corners.
Here in the decades after the Black Death, Europe was reeling from the devastation the plague had wrought, killing one-third of the population, young and old, rich and poor. The outpouring of organizations like the confraternity to aid and succor those in need must have been critical not only in alleviating physical suffering but also in bringing hope to a population that had experienced catastrophe.