Work of Art Wednesday: Images for Hope and Reflection

Pietro Berrettini da Cortona, The Birth of the Virgin
Wednesday, May 20, 2020 - 12:00pm

Pietro Berrettini (also known as Pietro da Cortona) was born in Cortona, Italy in 1597 to a family known for its work in stonemasonry, architectural design, and building. He began his training as an artist at the age of 14, working with three different artists in Cortona, Florence and later in Rome. He worked professionally as both an artist and architect and had many patrons including Pope Urban VIII (1623-44), Pope Innocent X (1644-55), Pope Alexander VII (1655-67), Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), and the wealthy Roman family, the Sacchettis, who hired him to construct their villa and decorate its chapel and galleries. During da Cortona’s lifetime, he was commissioned to complete frescoes, altarpieces, and church facades. He died at age 72 and is buried in Rome.

This painting not only describes the family of the Virgin Mary at the time of her birth, it also provides a glimpse into 17th century palazzo life. The setting for the birth in this painting is the bedroom of a modern Italian palace, complete with female room attendants, a beautiful view out the room's window, and luxurious furnishings: a four-post wooden bed and expensive-looking fabric coverlets and draperies. Each female assistant has a particular task in either serving the infant or the mother—their action illustrates what life may have been like in a wealthy palace.

Anne (St. Anne), mother of the Virgin Mary, is depicted resting in bed soon after becoming a new mother and is flanked by two helpers, one of which holds a decorative bowl. Anne’s husband, Joachim, stands at the foot of the bed—the only male in a setting in which females typically dominate. The story of Anne and Joachim describes the miracle of Mary’s birth, as both Anne and Joachim were elderly parents. Anne was past the age for having a baby and thus their daughter was conceived miraculously, which made Mary a child conceived without sin and the perfect future mother for the Christ Child. St. Anne is the patron saint of married couples and is looked to for assistance with pregnancy and child health.

A painting such as this, depicting Anne, Joachim and the Virgin Mary, was valued as a sacred object to provide protection for a family and its occupants. Scholars have estimated that during the early 15th century in Florence as many as 20% of females died during childbirth, so obtaining inspirational comfort from imagery such as this would be useful in a household.

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