Madonna of the Harpies
- (1517; Florence, Uffizi)This work was painted by Andrea del Sarto for the Convent of San Francesco dei Macci in Florence. An unconventional representation, the Virgin is shown standing on a pedestal that is decorated with harpies, mythological monsters who carry away the souls of the dead and minister punishment. Also on the pedestal are inscribed the first lines of the hymn to the Virgin of the Assumption, which explains why the two putti at Mary's feet seem to be pushing her upward. The work has been the subject of much discussion because the inclusion of the harpies is not well understood. Identified variously as harpies, sphinxes, sirens, and other mythical creatures, they have inspired readings that range from symbols of paganism superseded by the triumph of Christianity to sin conquered by the Virgin's purity. Some believe that del Sarto's Mary is the woman of the Apocalypse described in the Book of Revelations who engages in a spiritual battle against demons or the embodiment of the Immaculate Conception who tramples the dragon of evil. In the painting, Mary is flanked by Sts. Francis and John the Evangelist, this last figure based on one of the males holding a book in Raphael's School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura (1510-1511) at the Vatican. Saint John is there because he authored one of the Gospels where the story of salvation is told, and St. Francis is the patron of the Poor Claires who resided in the monastery for which the work was painted.
Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. Lilian H. Zirpolo. 2008.
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