Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Madonna of the Earthquakes
  • Creator: Francesco di Giorgio Martini, artist
  • Description:

    This image was painted on the cover of an account book belonging to Siena’s Biccherna, the most important financial group within the government. The names of members of that group at the time of the painting's commission are located in the inscription at the bottom. Book covers of this type often illustrated actual events from the city’s contemporary history in allegorical forms. Franceso di Giorgio Martini’s Madonna of the Earthquakes visually records the earthquakes that struck Siena during the summer of 1467. In the medieval period, natural disasters were not necessarily seen as the wrath of an angry God or a sign of the apocalypse. However, they were regarded as tremendous events that interrupted daily life. In such times of distress, people would often appeal to a patron saint for aid. When the tremors began, the Sienese commended themselves to the Virgin Mary and pledged to bring a generous ex-voto gift to the shrine of the Madonna della Quercia (Madonna of the Oak) at Viterbo if the danger were averted. The crisis passed, and an embassy laden with gifts was sent to the shrine. To the people of Siena, the Virgin was more than a cult figure. She was the defender, protector, and principal patron of their city. Acts of dedication to her were an important part of a powerful civic identity and ideology that was reinforced over time through subsequent acts of re-dedication. This painting incorporates a complex perspectival landscape composition. In the foreground, we see tents arranged in an arc formation on a hillside. A valley is located behind them, and a realistic representation of the city of Siena is located on the hill that fills the middle ground. The scene likely represents the view from a south-eastern vantage point with the gate of Porta Pispinin at the center, the northern district of Camollia hidden behind a ridge of hills, and the Montagonola ridge located to the west of the city. The Virgin Mary flanked by many angels hovers above the detailed, recognizable cityscape. The legend “at the time of the earthquakes” is boldly inscribed in capital letters between the divine figures and the city scene.

    The accurate depiction of Siena in this image evokes other sophisticated images of the city, such as The Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni with the City of Siena (1406-7) by Taddeo di Bartolo. This image served to remind the governors of the city that if they wanted Siena, the city of the Virgin Mary, to emulate Jerusalem, the city of God, then they needed to learn and respect the teachings of the prophets, honor the Church fathers, act in accordance with Christian values, and aspire to follow the practical political achievements of heroic figures like Ambrogio. It is likely that the sophisticated image of Siena in the Madonna of the Earthquakes served a similar purpose and evoked similar sentiments. Although this painting records a serious earthquake, it is a remarkably calm and composed image. The numerous tents testify to the quickness with which the citizens of Siena moved outside of the city to wait out the tremors in the countryside. Meanwhile, the watchful Virgin Mary with her outstretched arms and cloak affirms the divine protection afforded to both the city and citizens. The conflation of the tents in the foreground and the built city in the background into a single quasi-realistic representation of Siena’s devotion to the Virgin Mary is unique because usually the Madonna protects a singular group. Francesco and his Sienese patrons wanted to emphasized the miraculous intervention of the Virgin Mary during this time of crisis, in order to evoke the old protections offered to the city by the divine. Thus, the painting, as Fabrizio Nevola concludes, is more like a representation of a miracle, rather than a record of a disaster.
  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Cities Earthquakes Intercession Mary, Virgin, Saint Miracles Tents
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1467
  • Related Work: Taddeo di Bartolo, The Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni with the City of Siena, 1406-7
  • Current Location: Siena, Archivo di Stato
  • Original Location: Siena, Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Paintings;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Panel; Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 53/40/
  • Inscription: ALTENPO DE TREMVOTI (At the time of the earthquakes)
  • Related Resources: Norman, Diana. Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State. Yale Universy Press. 1999. 209-210.; Nevola, Fabrizio. "A Short Note for Francesco di Giorgio Martini's Madonna of the Earthquakes (1467)." Renaissance Studies in Honor of Joseph Connors edited by Machtelt Israels and Louis A. Waldman. Vill I Tatti. Florence. 2013. Pgs. 213-219.; Rohr, Christian. "Man and Natural Disaster in the Late Middle Ages: The Earthquake in Carinthia and Northern Italy on 25 January 1348 and its Perception." Environment and History. Vol. 9. No. 2 (May 2003): Pgs. 127-149. Coping with the Unexpected — Natural Disasters and their Perception.; Syson, Luke. Renaissance Siena: Art for a City. National Gallery Company. London. 2007. Pgs. 85, 88-89.