Sigismund Conti of Foligno, the private secretary of Pope Julius II., going from Rome to his home in Foligno, came very near being killed by a falling meteor. He attributed his deliverance to the Virgin, and vowed to make an offering to her. In fulfillment of this vow, he commissioned Raphael to paint this most precious picture.
You see in the background of the picture a broad plain at the edge of some blue hills and in this plain a town with a few towers. Allowing for a few imaginative details, the sketch is true to Foligno as it is today. It has not changed much since the 16th century. If you look carefully at the picture, you will see the meteor falling.
In the upper part of the picture is the Madonna in glory, by her side the infant Christ. Both are looking down on Sigismund Conti, the donor, who is gazing up to them with a look of the most intense gratitude and devotion. It is an actual portrait of Sigismund. St. Jerome, who is standing a little back, places his hand upon the head of the donor, as if to present him to his celestial protectress. On the opposite side John the Baptist points upward to the Redeemer. In front kneels St. Francis of Assisi, looking up to Heaven with the most rapt expression. His extended right arm seems to be pointing to the worshippers in the church, as if he wished them also to be included in the protecting care of the Virgin.
The Madonna di Foligno was dedicated in the church of Ara Coeli in Rome, one of the Franciscan churches, which explains the presence of St. Francis.
Raphael was twenty-eight when he painted this picture. After the death of Sigismund Conti, his grand niece, Sister Anna (Conti), obtained permission to remove it to her convent in Foligno. Napoleon carried it to Paris in 1792. In 1815, when the works of art which he carried away were brought back to Italy, it was placed in the Vatican picture gallery.
The Madonna di Foligno, as I have already said, was first placed in the church of Ara Coeli in Rome.
When the Roman Senate decreed to give divine honors to Augustus Caesar, he seems to have been in some doubt as to whether he should receive them. He therefore consulted the Tiburtine Sibyl. These Sibyls foretold the coming of Christ to the Gentiles. Varro, who wrote one hundred years before Christ, gives their number as ten, and says they took their names from the locality from which they came.
There are only two of them that are famous in art, the Cumaen Sibyl, and the Tiburtine Sibyl, from Tivoli. There were many serious disagreements in the early church as to the value of the prophecies of these Sibyls. St. Jerome and St. Augustine believed they were inspired of God. The two most interesting traditions pertain to the Cumaen and the Tiburtine Sibyls.
The Cumaen was beloved by Apollo. He told her to ask for anything she chose, and he would grant it. She asked to live a thousand years, but forgot to ask for youth; she is always represented as being very old. One day she appeared before Tarquin the Proud, and offered for sale nine books containing the Sibylline prophecies. She asked a large price; he refused to buy them. She went away and burned three of them, came to him again and offered the six books, and asked the same price that she did for the nine. Still he refused. She went away and burned three more, came again, and offered the remaining three, asking the same price as for the nine. Tarquin then consulted a soothsayer, who told him that the destinies of the world depended upon the preservation of these prophecies. The three books were then bought, and for centuries were consulted in all emergencies of the Roman nation. They were preserved in the capitol in Rome, and were under the care of special priests.
During the wars of Marius and Sylla they disappeared. Messengers were sent far and wide to collect these scattered Sibylline leaves, and what were found were carefully preserved. Tacitus and Suetonius both say that the ancient Romans believed that he, who should rule the world, would come out of Judea, and this they took from the Sibylline leaves. Augustus therefore consulted the Tiburtine Sibyl, whether or not he should accept these divine honors. She told him that his power was declining, that he would better go away from her silently, for a Hebrew child would be born, who would rule over the gods themselves ; that a king would come from Heaven, whose kingdom would have no end. Another version says that Augustus saw the heavens open, and a woman with a child in her arms standing on an altar, and he heard a voice saying, “Haec Ara filii Dei” (This is the altar of the Son of God) .
The Emperor believed in the vision, and reported it to the Senate and in commemoration of the vision erected upon the Capitoline Hill an altar on which was inscribed, “Ara primo geniti Dei” (To the first born of God), and upon this spot was erected the church of Ara Coeli (The Altar of Heaven).
It was in this church, October 15, 1764, that Gibbon conceived the idea of writing the “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
( Originally Published 1912 )
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