Visual Arts and Communication of Power

Petra Batelja

Individual, Collective and State Representation in the Images of the Virgin of Mercy: Examples from Northern Croatia from the 18th Century

The Virgin of Mercy (Croatian: Bogorodica zaštitnica, Latin: Mater misericordiae, German: Schutzmantelmadonna) is an image type in Marian iconography, symbolically representing her as a divine protectress of those sheltered under her cloak. In addition to the basic theological and Marian meaning, which translates into strong religious devotion, numerous works of art from north Croatia, especially those from the 18th century, contain particular elements and motifs that indicate the commissioners' tendency for self-representation and elements of iconography of the ruling Habsburg dynasty. Amongst the fifty-five documented artworks of this Marian iconographic type in Croatian art, published in the book The Mother of God Protectress Amongst Croats. Theological and Art History Approach (Juraj Batelja, Petra Batelja, Zagreb, 2013), there are several wall paintings and altarpieces that fall under the same model of the individual, collective and state (re)presentation. The examples from Trški Vrh, Vinagora, Lepoglava, Gračani, Velika Mlaka and Sisak share the same motif of Virgin Mary's crown that can be interpreted as a "Habsburg" crown, known as a special type of a "split" crown consisting of the circlet (German: Kronreif), the mitre (German: Mitra) and the high arch (German: Kronbügel), and that resembles the Crown of Emperor Rudolf II. As the crown on her head declares her as Regina coeli (“Queen of Heaven”), the use of this specific type indicates the commissioners’ political loyalty to the rulers the Habsburgs.

Several images of the Virgin of Mercy reflect the commissioners’ tendency to either create or confirm their identity, usually that of some religious group, which can be observed even on earlier artworks showing, for example, the Virgin of Mercy accompanied by members of religious orders (for example, the Dominicans or Cistercians) or fraternities (most commonly that of Our Lady of Charity (Croatian: Gospa od Milosrđa) or that of St Jacob). Fresco paintings in the pilgrimage churches of Our Lady of Jerusalem at Trški Vrh (end of the 18th ct) and the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Vinagora (18th ct, destroyed in the 20th ct) show people of all ages, with humble gestures, without individualized faces and dressed in traditional garment, that represent members of the common (local) religious community, instead of members of a particular fraternity. In this way the collective religious identity became an integral part of the imagery of the Virgin of Mercy.

Images with the so called "collective" representation that depicts the cross section of society presents a completely different case. Under the Virgin Mary’s cloak, typified men and women are being led by church (pope, cardinal, bishop, priest, monks) and state authority figures (king, queen, noblemen, soldiers). Such images work as an unambiguous visual reminder that the Virgin Mary does not protect only specific, privileged individuals and groups, but also everyone who seeks her help. Images of believers with royal insignia sheltered under Virgin Mary's cloak can be found, for example, on the wall painting of the Virgin of Mercy (before 1759) in St Barbara’s Parish Church in Velika Mlaka, on the altarpiece "Mary Help of Christians‒Auxilium Christianorum" in St Michael’s Church in Gračani, Zagreb (before 1779) and on the wooden painted antependium in the Museum of Arts and Crafts, originally from the vicinity of Lepoglava (beginning of the 18th ct).

Apart from the basic understanding of the Virgin Mary as Mater omnium (Mother of All), the reading of the historical context and specific motifs suggest a more complex idea of the Virgin Mary as the Protectress of real, concrete individuals and certain ideological and political beliefs. Depicted insignias can be interpreted not only as attributes that serve to visually differentiate individuals, but also as symbols of their standing and nobility status within the Triune Kingdom and the Habsburg Monarchy. Although they are symbolically equalized with the common folk under Virgin Mary's cloak, their higher social status is unambiguously emphasized by individual, portrait characteristic and heraldic motifs. Such an example can be found on the antependium of the Virgin of Mercy (18th ct) with the coat of arms of portrayed individuals, which have not yet been identified, at the Sisak Diocese Office for Culture.

By accentuating the visual elements and motifs of personal and/or state ideological and political representation, the iconography of patronage on the images of the Virgin of Mercy is almost equal to the basic Marian message. The identification of depicted individuals and precise reasons for their appearance under the Virgin Mary's cloak in a specific historical and political context will provide a better understanding of mechanisms of transmitting particular ideas and, above all, the role of the imagery of the Virgin of Mercy in the cultural transition.

Visual material used in the article