7.9a.2 Portable Altarpiece with the Weeping Madonna
This folio page shows a portable altarpiece with an image of a bust-length Madonna with head and eyes cast down. She wears a veil and is framed by rays of light and a ring of stars, and is encased within an elaborate gold and silver frame with Arabic inscriptions. At the top right, the royal emblem of the Nasrid dynasty of Grenada, translated as "There is no victorious one except God," is visible. The words of the prayer O Intemerata appear below the Madonna. The color palette of the altarpiece consists of rich reds, blues, and gold.
This image from Christian Europe comes from a manuscript book created in the 1480s or 1490s for a rich layperson to use in cult (worship) at home. An artist illuminated (painted by hand) this page with a picture of a portable altar. The woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who is also called the Virgin Mary and Our Lady. She was the most popular saint at that time for European Christians, who believed that she would carry their prayers to Jesus. Some found it more comfortable to pray to her than to God or Jesus directly. This altarpiece shows a very sad Virgin Mary crying over the death of her son, Jesus. Mary wears a blue veil or scarf, with a red hood underneath it. There are rays of gold coming out from Mary and a ring of stars around her. The altarpiece has a frame with Arabic letters on it. O Intemerata, in Latin, means “Oh, pure woman.” These were the first two words to a popular prayer to the Virgin Mary. Some iconographic features of Mary are a halo around her head, a blue shawl or dress, and a sweet, motherly expression on her face.
It’s important that students realize that Mary was (and still is for some) the most important saint and the center of devotion. Students need to appreciate how different devotional practices were in Europe before the Reformation. It’s not necessary to explain the Reformation at this point, but ask students to set aside what they or others believe now to try to understand what people believed then. Another key point is that while the Christian Church never called Mary a goddess and firmly denied that statues of her were idols, there is a strong similarity in the ways that common laypeople in Mexico and Europe worshipped these female figures. This particular image of the Virgin Mary is unusual for its Arabic inscriptions, which were probably on the original portable altarpiece that belonged to King René I of Anjou, the Count of Provence and claimant to the throne of Naples and Sicily.