(b. 1609, Sassoferrato, d. 1685, Roma)

The Virgin in Prayer

Oil on canvas, 73 x 58 cm
National Gallery, London

Like Carlo Dolci, Giovanni Battista Salvi, called Sassoferrato from his birthplace in the Marches, had close ties with the Benedictines. Their motto, ora et labora, 'pray and work', seems as fitting to him as it does to his devout Florentine contemporary. Like Dolci, he relied on the compositional inventions of others: fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists such as Perugino, Dürer, Tintoretto, Lo Spagna; contemporaries, above all Reni; and the fashionable Madonnas painted in Rome by the Frenchman Mignard. His work has often been mistaken for that of a follower of Raphael, so closely did he model himself on the 'pure' style of an earlier age. After he had copied some pictures for the Benedictine monastery in Perugia at the age of 21, he was introduced to a reformed Franciscan friary in Rome, the city in which he lived for some forty years and where he died. A pious princess commissioned his one famous altarpiece, for the Dominican church of Santa Sabina in Rome, to replace a precious Raphael which the Dominicans unwisely sold to a collector.

With the exception of some portraits of devout ecclesiastics, and a self portrait commissioned by a cardinal in 1683 for Duke Cosimo III de' Medici's gallery of artists' likenesses, Sassoferrato made his living from devotional pictures such as this one. Most were made in 'multiple originals', on commission and for sale to pilgrims. This popular composition, based on an engraving purported to be after Reni, is known in over fifteen variants.

Sassoferrato suffers in our estimation partly for being the kind of self-abnegating artist we least admire, and partly because his pictures directly influenced the pious art of the nineteenth century in all its sentimental excess. Yet his own work is too robust to be sentimental, and too well painted. The enamel-like finish, the jewel brightness of white, red, costly ultramarine blue on black, preclude neither vigorous modelling of form nor acute observation - as of the pale reflections of the Virgin's veil in the shadows on her face and cheek.

Sassoferrato is catering to the Counter-Reformation reaffirmation of the cult of the Virgin and of the efficacy of her images, in the same spirit in which histories and atlases of these miracle-working icons were being compiled and published throughout Europe. The Virgin in Prayer, her veil leaning out of the painting into our space, is praying over us, for us, as an example to us, in submission to the will of the Father, to the Son. She has been abstracted from narratives of the Annunciation, the Adoration, the Nativity, so that we may pray through her, lose our fretful egoism in her infinite mercy and humility, as the artist has submerged his handwriting in the icon. Her eyes are lowered, but if we look up at her from a hassock or a prie-dieu, a sickbed or a deathbed, her tender glance will fall on us. She is alone, without the Child, our mother, our nurse, intercessor on our behalf, and Sassoferrato's message is that to submit to her is to reclaim our strength, our freedom and our dignity.