Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto and the Function of Images of the Pregnant Virgin Mary

Frank Ferrie

Abstract


Despite recent studies, the function of images of the pregnant Virgin Mary in the late medieval period remains unclear. In the limited scholarly literature on the subject, the majority view is that such images, as the subject matter suggests, were designed to be used as aids in matters of childbirth and fertility. To support their claims, writers commonly cite the modern-day practice of pregnant and recently delivered women placing flowers and other offerings in front of expectant Virgin images. However, there is no contemporary fourteenth- or fifteenth-century evidence to support the notion that the Italian image-type known as the Madonna del Parto was originally used or designed to be used in this way.

This brief study of Piero della Francesca’s late and isolated fresco reconsiders claims for the function of the Madonna del Parto and seeks to clarify the issue by looking at causes for the dramatic decline in the use and commissioning of such images in fifteenth-century Tuscany. The essay then explores briefly the significance of variations in the iconography of the images, and asks finally whether, as suggested by the chorus of those who claim the pregnant Madonna as a patron of childbirth, we can group the images together as a definitive ‘type’.


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