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Our Lady of Succour

The ‘Madonna del Soccorso’ saving a Child from the Clutches of the Devil

Niccolò di Liberatore da Foligno called Niccolò Alunno (1425/1430-ca. 1502). Galleria Colonna. Rome.

Niccolò Alunno, born around 1430 at Foligno in Italy got his name by accident and by error. Giorgio Vasari read somewhere that the painter was born in Foligno (‘alumnus fulginie’, native of Foligno) and hence called him Alunno in his book of 1548 on the lives of the Italian artists. The name stuck, but Niccolò’s real name was Niccolò di Liberatore and he was also often called after his birthplace. In 1452 he married the daughter of the painter Pietro di Giovanni Mazzaforte and he must have worked in the workshop of his father-in-law. It has been suggested also that Niccolò da Foligno worked with Benozzo Gozzoli, the pupil of Fra Angelico, but despite Gozzoli’s presence in Umbria both painters seem to have been merely contemporaries and Gozzoli’s style is very different from Alunno’s. Alunno also worked together or he was a pupil of Bartolommeo di Tommaso. From 1568 on to the beginning of the 1470’s he worked in Assisi. After 1480 he worked together with his son Lattanzio di Niccolò (active 1480-1527). He died in 1502.

Niccolò Alunno’s painting, ‘The Madonna liberates a Child from the Clutches of the Devil’ is a rare picture. The ‘Madonna del Soccorso’ was however well known as a devotional image in the regions of Umbria and the Marche of Italy. The panel may have been part of a triptych of around 1497, but it would have been a strange central panel for the altar of a church.

The panel consists of two parts. Below, we see a demon tearing at a child, trying to draw it ferociously towards him. The mother of the child holds her baby still by one leg and desperately appeals to the Madonna. She points in a dramatic gesture to what the demon is doing. The mother is not trying to rescue the body of her child, but its soul. We see the child actually sleeping beneath her, still enveloped in linen. The mother withholds the naked soul of the baby and it is the soul that the devil wants to wrench away from her. The devil looks in fear and in hatred to the Madonna because he knows she will save the child by divine intervention. Alunno depicted a fearful Satan, hairy, black and horrible so that all children and of course also all medieval church-goers of Alunno’s times must have been terrified at the sight. Pictures like this were sheer reality for medieval and early Renaissance viewers of the Italian countryside and of its small towns.

In the upper part of the panel we see the Madonna in glory. She stands in a mandorla and four cherubim angels support her so that the presence of God is also near. She holds high an arrow of fire, ready to thrust this onto the demon and so to rescue the child and help the mother. The little angels look at the Madonna, at the demon and at the mother, in expectancy of an act of the Virgin. Alunno also painted a low landscape behind the main scene, which is nicely but naively painted. He also situated the scene between the two columns of an ancient palace, even though the mother or foster-mother is hardly dressed as a noble woman. Alunno showed a common woman in this picture, not a noble lady. The painting may have been commissioned for a smaller church of a minor town. Alunno worked in Foligno and lived there; his workshop was in Foligno. The panel was probably made for a church, abbey in Foligno or in its vicinity.

Niccolò Alunno’s panel has more value by its antiquity and its unusual, folklore image than by the painterly mastery of the work. Still, Alunno used string colours that supported well the theme and the painted the Madonna finely, as well as her mandorla and the colours there. The expression on the faces of the mother, demon and Mary are very lively and must have inspired much awe in the devotees. The picture inspires horror and fear, not unlike Benozzo Gozzoli’s fearful images of the Last Judgement in the Camposanto of Pisa must have done. This fear of the demon must have remained long in the memories of Umbria from the Middle Ages on, when armies and bandits roamed through the unprotected countryside. Plagues were endemic in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. People had a much closer feeling of violence, murder, rape, slaying of children and bodies torn up than in the later periods and in the larger cities like Florence or Venice. Hell clearly continued to inspire awe and fear in Umbria.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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