Beating the devil: Images of the Madonna del Soccorso in Italian Renaissance art
by El-Hanany, Efrat, PhD, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, 2006
Abstract: An unusually empowered devotional image of the Virgin Mary, the so-called Madonna del Soccorso, appeared for a brief period in the history of central Italian Renaissance art (1480s-1520s). Here the otherwise graceful Queen of Heaven is presented wielding a club against a devil who threatens to abduct a helpless child. This study investigates the Augustinian order’s promotion of this strikingly spectacular image in banners, frescos and altarpieces throughout the regions of Umbria, the Marches and Tuscany, arguing that it served to define and promote specific Augustinian ideologies such as the power of speech and the necessity of early Baptism. But as part of the larger tradition of child miracle imagery, the Madonna del Soccorso was also intended to give comfort in societal disasters of the period, especially in instances of the inexplicable death of children, parental negligence and infanticide. In the various late-medieval textual sources of the Soccorso miracle, notably the Speculum Historiale of Vincent de Beauvais and the Miracles of the Virgin Mary of Gautier de Coincy, a malediction placed on the child by his own mother (che il diavoli ti porti via—’may the devil take you’) can be seen to suggest the involuntary or deliberate act on the part of the mother that brought about the death of her child. The independent agency granted to the Virgin in this imagery is seen to have unbalanced accepted doctrinal understandings of the limited power of Mary and indeed that of women during the time in question, particularly with reference to a possible overturning of the recognized sexual hierarchy. This undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent banning of the Madonna del Soccorso typology by the Council of Trent. [!] This study therefore presents a comprehensive examination of this unique and intriguing typology by bringing together issues of gender, power, social and religious history and popular superstition and devotion that have not previously been considered holistically within this context. I am hoping that this research may contribute to a revisionist feminist reading of Madonna iconography within the contemporary scholarship of Renaissance imagery.