Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: The Madonna rescues a child
  • Creator: Domenico di Zanobi, painter
  • Description:

    In this painting, the virgin Mary dominates the scene, towering over the other figures. She wears a tunic and mantle with her right arm upraised holding a club. This menacing gesture is in contrast to the serene look on her face and the golden halo surrounding her head. On her left is a devil with an iron-clawed instrument attempting to grab a child, who is clinging to her mantle. To the far right of Mary, the child’s mother prays for aid, dressed in black and on her knees with her arms raised in supplication. “Sancta Maria Del Soccorso” (Holy Mary of Help) is written in the background of the painting.

    This altarpiece was commissioned for the Velluti Chapel in the church of Santo Spirito in Florence and remains in situ. Santo Spirito was an Augustinian priory and served as a center for theological education and shared spiritual life. A representative for the Velluti family gave the friars of Santo Spirito the choice in how to decorate the chapel and this painting was commissioned in concert with Augustinian concerns and ideals. All of the chapels located in the southern corner of the right arm of the chapel relate to Augustinian themes. The entire church is dedicated to the Virgin, and D'Ancona has argued that the chapel was associated with the veneration of the virgin immaculate. The original church at Santo Spirito burned in 1471, and this was part of the renewal and rebuilding of the church. During the 1480s and 1490s various depictions of the Madonna del Soccorso were created in cloisters and churches founded by the order of Hermits, pointing to the Augustinian promotion of this image. The Madonna del Soccorso image reflects the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Because she is free of original sin, the devil has to flee from her. The painting is attributed to Dominico di Zenobi, previously known as the Master of the Johnson Nativity. Zenobi was an assistant to Filippo Lippi and later shared a workshop with Domenico di Michelino in Florence.

    There is a story from the sixth century by Theophilus of Adina that recounts Mary giving a repentant man back the contract he had made with the devil. (This scene is depicted in stained glass in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris). In the Speculum Historiale (1264), the Dominican friar Vincent de Beauvais tells of a boy consigned to the devil by his mother. When she grew fearful for her child, she sought out a holy man. The hermit called on the Virgin, who appeared and fought off the devil. In 1306, the Friar Nicollo Bruni, head of the Augustinian order in Palermo had a vision of the Virgin. She healed him of illness and instructed him to call her Madonna del Soccorso. A later legend records an apparition of the Madonna del Socorrso on the streets of Palermo to save a child from the devil when his mother cursed him. In another version of the legend, the mother does not curse the child with words, but conceives the child during Holy Week which was considered a sin.

    The Madonna del Socorrso is a variation on the Marian type known as the Madonna della Misericordia. Mary’s cloak is a well-established feature in this instance symbolizing the protection she affords the faithful. The Madonna della Misericordia image, however, is symbolic, while Madonna del Soccorso is active and aggressive. It is unusual because female power in art of this period often has a negative and malicious tone. There are about fifty surviving paintings of this type of Madonna. The Council of Trent in 1545 decreed this image heterodox, and many images of this kind were removed or effaced.

    Children were in need of protection from many kinds of dangers. The Black Death in 1348-51 killed more than one-third of Europe's population. Children were especially susceptible making up 70-80% of plague deaths in a resurgence in 1430. El-Hanany argues that the motif of the Madonna del Soccorso first appears in 1485 in Umbria where a wave of the plague had reoccurred. She further argues that another danger for children, sudden infant death syndrome, could be a factor since it was thought to be of demonic origin in the medieval period. Kidnapping of children was a worry and fear of the devil stealing the soul of a child was also high. She explains that the blending of the spiritual and physical worlds was such that if a child was found dead, mothers were sometimes accused of witchcraft. The Madonna del Soccorso was a devotional resource for parents worried about their children’s physical and spiritual well-being.

  • Source:
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Augustinian Order Devil in Art Florence- Church of Santo Spirito- Velluti Chapel Madonna del Soccorso (Artistic Motif) Madonna, Figure in Art Mary, Virgin, Saint in Art Mary, Virgin, Saint- Cult Mary, Virgin, Saint as Madonna del Soccorso, a Club-Wielding Figure Who Saves Children from the Devil Mother, Image of in Art
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: ca 1475- 1485
  • Related Work: Madonna del Soccorso, 1485 (?), oil on canvas, altarpiece. Church S. Agostino, Gubbio.
    Francesco Melanzio da Montefalco, Madonna del Soccorso?1494, tempera on panel, processional banner. Abbey of San Felice, Giano del Umbria.
    Madonna del Soccorso, 15th century. Galleria Mazzarino, Palermo.
    Ansano di Michele Ciampanti, Madonna del Soccorso, late 15th or early 16th centuries, panel. Amedeo Lia Civic Museum, La Spezia.
    Timoteo Viti, Madonna del Soccorso, 1504, fresco. Church of S. Agostino, Urbino.
    Giovanni Pagani da Monterubbiano, Madonna del Soccorso, 1506, panel. Musée Fabre, Montpellier.
    Bernardino di Mariotto (da Perugia), Madonna del Soccorso, 1509, tempera on panel, banner. Sacristy, Doumo Nuovo, Sanseverino nelle Marche.
    Tiberio d’Assisi, Madonna del Soccorso, 1510, tempera on canvas. Museo di San Francesco, Montefalco.
    Madonna del Soccorso, ca. 1510, fresco. Chapel of the Soccorso, Basilica of San Frediano, Lucca.
    Bernardo di Girolamo da Gualdo, Madonna del Soccorso, 1515-32. Formerly in the Gruner Collection, Innsburk
    Paolo Bontulli, Madonna del Soccorso, 1522, fresco. Sanctuary della Madonna del Piano, Serravalle del Chianti.
    Madonna del Soccorso, 1533 or l555, fresco. Church of S. Agostino, Bevagna.
    Raffaellino del Colie, Madonna del Soccorso with Saints John the Baptist and Christopher, ca. 1539, oil on panel. Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino.
    Madonna of Mercy with Foundlings. Madonna del Soccorso images relate to the Madonna of Mercy themes of which this is an example.
    Dominico di Zanobi, (active 1445-1481) The Madonna and Child, ca. 1470-1499, National Trust, Upton House.
    Dominico di Zanobi, Italian (active Florence), Adoration of the Christ Child, ca. 1467-1481, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
  • Current Location: Florence, Church of Santo Spirito, Velluti Chapel
  • Original Location: Florence, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images ; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood Panel ; Tempera paints
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 123 cm/102 cm/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    Arthur, Kathleen. “The ‘Maria Del Sochorso’ Altarpiece: A Cretan Icon Transformed in Counter-Reformation Italy.” Southeastern College Art Conference Review, January 2012. Available on the freelibrary.com

    Brown, Katherine T. Mary of Mercy in Medieval and Renaissance Italian Art: Devotional Image and Civic Emblem. Routledge, 2017.

    El–Hanany, Efrat. “Beating the Devil: Images of the Madonna del Soccorso in Italian Renaissance Art.” Dissertation. University of Indiana, 2006.

    Ekserdjian, David. The Italian Renaissance Altarpiece. Yale University Press, 2021. Pages 241-242.

    Fondaras, Antonia. Augustinian Art and Meditation in Renaissance Florence: The Choir Altarpieces of Santo Spirito 1480-1510. Brill, 2020.

    Levi D'Ancona, Mirella. The Iconography of the Immaculate Conception in the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. College Art Association in collaboration with the University of Michigan, 1957. Available open access in Hathi Trust.

    Sand, Alexa. "Vindictive Virgins: Animate Images and Theories of Art in Some Thirteenth Century Miracle Stories." Word & Image 26, 2 (2010): 150-159.