The painting is a colorful example of an ex voto, a form of religious offering to a divinity (a practice dating back to ancient Greece) after a request has been granted. In this case the commissioner of the work Sigismondo de’ Conti, secretary of Pope Julius II, offers the panel itself as an ex voto to thank the Madonna for her miraculous protection: a miracle that is visible in the center background of the work, where one sees a fireball fly over the houses without damaging them. Those houses were the property of the client. The structure of the work is a pyramid: at the top the Madonna and child appear in a halo of light, seated on a throne of clouds that transform into faces of small blue cherubs. In the bottom half, the client kneels in prayer, with three saints that intercede at the Madonna’s request, playing a role similar to that of the “secretaries” that act as the miraculous bridge between the faithful and the highest divinities. As already seen in polyptychs, the saints are not chosen by coincidence. Usually they are related to the private cult of the commissioner, and the destination of the work; furthermore, when the commissioner himself is represented, he is introduced by a saint that carries his same name, or the saint to whom the man portrayed is particularly devoted. This is the case in this work. 

Sigismondo de’ Conti is introduced into the presence of the Madonna by Saint Jerome, recognized by his physiognomy (old, bald, with a long beard), for the cardinal’s habit, and the presence of the lion. Then on the left is Saint John the Baptist, dressed in camel’s hide, with the processional cross in hand, and Saint Francis of Assisi, recognized by his Franciscan habit, the cross he bears, and the stigmata visible on the hand open to the viewer. The presence of Saint Francis is linked with the original destination of the piece, the Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, run by the same order of friars. Raffaello Sanzio completed the piece while he was working in the Raphael Rooms in the Vatican. In that moment, he was enjoying the most prodigious moment of his career, considering his premature death in 1520. The fundamental characteristics of his style can be traced back to, above all, the childlike faces of the Baby Jesus and of the angel that holds the board up in the center of the panel: the sweetness and accurate linearity of the features, together with the vivid, but never over-saturated, colors. 

A painting on panel of the Madonna and child surrounded by Saints and Cherubs
Madonna di Foligno courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain