A-to-Z Index

Maria del Sochorso,

Behind the Scenes

Maria del Sochorso painting

The Artist

The artist is anonymous, but probably lived in Northern Italy. He may have gone to Rome for training, and seen the miracle-working icon himself. He used fluid brushwork and dramatic lighting in a typically Baroque manner. He was inventive in the way he adapted and re-used the icon in a new style.


This painting was recently cleaned and restored by conservator Mark Wittl of Virginia Art Conservation and Restoration, LLC and JMU student Amanda Kuhnley.  Mr. Wittl has done private restoration work for over 15 years on oil paintings from 16th Century to present day works. All restoration work is done using accepted archival and fully reversible conservation techniques. Mr. Wittl is listed in the Stanford University Conservation Directory and has restored paintings by the following listed artists and National Academy artists: Peter Max, Clementine Hunter, Egisto Ferroni, Walter Farndon, C.D. Williams, George Sheridan Knowles, Maria Szanthos, Walter Biggs, William Hart and many more.  Amanda Kuhnley graduated from JMU with a BS in Integrated Science and Technology and a BA in Art History with a minor in Studio Art and Classical Studies.  She is currently enrolled in JMU's Adult Education/HRD MS program.  You can read more about Amanda's work at: http://va-art.com/amanda/

Here is the painting before and after conservation.

Maria del Sochorso before and after conservation

The Researchers

Kathleen G. Arthur

Kathleen G. Arthur is professor emerita of art history, and curator of Medieval and Renaissance art at the Madison Art Collection. She has given several presentations on this altarpiece and has an article on it forthcoming in the 2012 Southeastern College Art Conference Review.

Allison Donzella 

Allison majored in Art History and graduated from JMU in 2011. Etc  She researched this painting in fall 2009 and produced the following catalog entry:

“Maria del Sochorso,” Lombard or Emilian School, oil on canvas, c. 1600-1750. (Madison Art Collection 76.1.929)    

The Maria del Soccorso is a small Baroque devotional altarpiece derived from a Byzantine icon type called “the Madonna of Perpetual Help.”  The words, "S. Maria del Sochorso," appear across the top edge of the canvas.  The central image includes the Madonna and Christ child, accompanied by angels carrying symbols of the Passion of Christ. These are the archangels Michael and Gabriel with the instruments from the Passion, which include the cross and lance used to pierce Christ's side.  The Virgin Mary gazes outward, while the Christ Child seeks protection in his mother's arms as he looks over his shoulder at the angels. His gaze is usually interpreted as signifying awareness of his impending fate.[1]  Beneath the Virgin and Child two saints are positioned in the lower corners, as if worshipping them.  The saint on the left, identified with an "N" in his halo is believed to be Saint Nicholas of Bari, who in both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic iconography is portrayed as an elderly man with a white beard, usually holding a gospel book and bishop’s crozier.[2] The saint on the right, identified by the "B" in his halo, is thought to be either Saint Bernard Tolomei or Saint Benedict. However, the white robe of the Olivetan order that the figure wears suggests that he is most likely Saint Bernard.[3]  Both saints are associated with stories of helping the common people and healing the sick, which is probably why they were placed here.

The iconography of the Madonna and Child was influenced by the presence of an Eastern Post-Byzantine type of Madonna of the Passion or Madonna del Soccorso in Rome.  A merchant, who is said to have stolen the icon from the Isle of Crete, brought it to the city in the late fifteenth century.[4]  The image was placed in the Augustinian church of San Matteo in Via Merulana. As pilgrimages to Rome became more popular again in the sixteenth century, this miraculous icon became an object of devotion and source of consolation to many who traveled through Rome.[5]  When plague arrived in Italy in 1529, the Madonna del Soccorso was believed to help save people throughout the country.  The custom of carrying sacred pictures of the Madonna in religious precessions became common during this time.[6]  This much worshipped icon, whose power was believed to have the ability to avert illnesses and the plague, offered hope and salvation for the Italian people.  As a result, many cults devoted to the Madonna developed and spread throughout Northern Italy.[7]  

While the painting is unsigned, it is believed to have originated from either Lombardy or the Emilia-Romagna region.[8]  The title of Mary as the Mother of Perpetual Help stemmed from an Augustinian cult in Southern Italy, however the figure became most predominant in the north.  Cults appeared in towns like Bologna, where several confraternities dedicated to the Madonna del Soccorso developed.[9]  The Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo encouraged such societies in the Milan and wrote extensively about this theme.[10] 

Although it has been argued that the Madonna del Soccoroso dates anywhere from the sixteenth to eighteenth century, the early Baroque style of the work suggests that it was painted in the early seventeenth century.[11] There are still some Mannerist elements in the composition, but the overall style indicates an attempt to adopt aspects of Baroque art.[12]   The Madonna del Soccorso has a sense of immediacy and forcefulness characteristic of the stylistic reform of religious painting introduced by the Carracci in Bologna.[13]  The triangular compositional structure is an example of the Emilian tradition, which can be found in Annibale Carracci's Assumption of the Virgin and Ludovico Carracci's Bargellini Madonna. There is a similar ordering of space and figures in the painting, and a direct approach to the viewer.[14]  The dimensions of the painting, and way the saints in the foreground seem to be cut off, suggest that it could have been part of a larger altarpiece.  The saints appear to follow the guidelines for devotional images set forth during the Counter-reformation by the Archbishop of Bologna, Cardinal Gabriele Paloetti in his Discorso intorno alle immagini sacre e profane published in 1582.[15]    (Allison Donzella) 

[1] J. Magnier, “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company) Retrieved October 18, 2009 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11699b.htm

[2] Michael Ott, "St. Nicholas of Myra." The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 11. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911). http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11063b (accessed October 23, 2009). 

[3] Pierre Auguste Fournet, "St. Bernard Tolomeo." The  Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02504b.htm (accessed October 23, 2009).

[4] Anne Eriksen, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help: Invented Tradition and Devotional Success.”  Journal of Folklore Research, 42.3 (2005), 295-32.(accessed November 1, 2009). 295.

[5] Eriksen “Our Lady of Perpetual Help,” 302.

[6] Bruce Cole, Italian Art, 1250-1550: The Relation of Renaissance Art to Life and Society (New York: Harper & Row, 1987), 193-194.

[7] Nicholas Terpstra,  Lay Confraternities and Civic Religion in Renaissance Bologna (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 210.

[8] Kathleen G. Arthur suggests it is Bolognese, possibly by Cignani, see “The Most Successful Icon in History: S. Maria del Soccorso,” Abstract, Southeastern College Art Conference, 2008.

[9] Cole, Italian Art, 194-195.

[10] Christopher F. Black, Italian Confraternities in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.), 34.

[11] Expertise by Dr. Jeffery Fontana, assistant professor of Art History, Austin College Texas, suggests the painting is more Bolognese Mannerist in style.

[12]Kerry Downes, "Baroque." In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online, http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T006459 (accessed October 16, 2009).

[13] National Gallery of Art, Board of Trustees, The Age of Correggio and the Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventieth Centuries, (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 1986.), 327- 330.   

[14] National Gallery of Art, The Age of Correggio and the Carracci, 388.   

[15] J. P. Kirsh,“Council of Trent,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. (New York: Robert Appleton Company) http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15030c (accessed October 26, 2009)