Virgin and Child with Saints

WAG 2793


This type of picture showing the virgin and child with saints is called a 'sacra conversatione'- literally sacred conversation or meeting.Holy figures from widely different historical epochs come together in the timeless sacred space of the picture.Each saint is present because it had some particular significance for the owners of the picture. From left to right they are, 'St Francis of Assisi' - shown displaying the 'stigmata', wounds that miraculously appeared on his feet and hands redolent of those inflicted on Christ at the crucifixion. He carries a book that is possibly intended to be the Franciscan monastic rule. 'St Matthew' who was one of the four evangelists is shown holding a copy of his gospel and gesturing as though listening out attentively for the word of God. 'St Louis of Toulouse', who gave up his claim to the Kingdom of Naples in order to pursue a religious life also carries a volume, the contents of which are not clear, and he is dressed as Bishop of Lyon. The rejected gold crown of the kingdom of Naples is lying on the ground in front of him. 'St. John the Evangelist' is shown with pen poised to write his gospel, which he clasps in his other hand. 'St Anthony, Abbot', who is usually regarded as having founded monasticism carries a beggar’s bell and staff and is reading from a devotional book. 'St Peter, Martyr', a famous Dominican monk who was murdered is shown with the knives that were used to kill him and carrying a book possibly indicative of Dominican religious rule. We cannot be sure what significance these saints had for the Michiel or Donata families. The balancing at the outer edges of St Francis and St Peter Martyr may reflect the dominant place that the two major religious orders of Franciscans and Dominicans had in Venice, evident in say the two great churches of The Frari and San Giovanni e Paolo. There were also important lay religious fraternities connected with these saints that Giovanni Michiel might have belonged to. St John is possibly there as the name saint of Giovanni Michiel. The pose of the two evangelists is broadly similar, they may be intended to be read as a pair even though they are not symmetrically placed. Similarly St Louis and St Anthony may be seen as a pair of distinctly unworldly saints. Other symbols include what appear to be poppy petals strewn in the foreground. They are symbolic of death and may refer to the overcoming of death by Christ. The two trees growing out of the wall beside Mary - possibly meadow rue, a sign of grace, and a fig - indicate life transcending death, an allusion to Christ's death and resurrection.