Misericordia altarpiece

(beg. 1445; San Sepolcro, Museo Civico)
   The Misericordia Altarpiece was commissioned from Piero della Francesca by the Confraternity of the Misericordia of San Sepolcro, some of whose members were part of the artist's family. The contract stipulated that the work was to be carried out by Piero alone and completed within three years. Piero ignored both stipulations and the altarpiece was completed by his assistants a decade later. Dismembered in the 17th century, the work originally featured 23 panels, the central scene presenting a Madonna of the Mercy (in Italian, Misericordia) type who opens her mantle in a protective gesture. At her feet in prayer are the people of San Sepolcro, the hooded figure a member of the confraternity. His face is covered because these individuals wished to engage in charity in anonymity. On the lateral panels were Sts. Sebastian, associated with illness and hence a suitable inclusion as the confraternity cared for the sick; John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence, which then ruled the town of San Sepolcro; John the Evangelist, the local patron saint; and Bernardino da Siena, recently canonized and a major promoter of the Madonna of the Mercy cult. A Virgin Annunciate and Gabriel occupied the central panels on the pinnacles while a Crucifixion surmounted the polyptych. Other saints of significance to the confraternity and the city occupied the rest of the pinnacles and small border panels, while the predella featured narratives from the Passion and Resurrection. This last occupied the center of thepredella as legend has it that San Sepolcro (Holy Sepulcher) was founded in the 10th century by Sts. Arcanus and Giles who brought relics from Christ's tomb in Jerusalem and deposited them in the Benedictine abbey they established in the region. Clearly, the work reflects both the civic and religious aspects of life in the community of San Sepolcro and how the two were enmeshed in the minds of its citizens.

Historical dictionary of Renaissance art. . 2008.

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