Analyzing Religious Art Series Part Three: A Deeper Exploration

Analyzing Religious Art Series Part Three: A Deeper Exploration August 1, 2023

The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato, 1640-1650. National Gallery, London.
Picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Analyzing Religious Art Series: A Deeper Exploration

In this ongoing series for An Exhibition Of Art History, I am going to be analyzing famous works of religious art. The focus will be religious symbolism, the history of the piece, biblical history and reference and my personal interpretation of the piece. I hope you enjoy this series as it will take on a wide variety of artistic expressions and spiritual avenues. Each article will represent one piece to keep a clean and deep understanding of it’s history and message. My first article explored the famous work of Rembrandt, The Return Of the Prodigal Son.

The second article of the series focused on The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio. You may follow this link to read more.

This article will be discussing The Virgin in Prayer by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato.

The Virgin in Prayer: a powerful prayer in ultramarine 

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, created this oil on canvas (c. 1640–1650) as a result of a reformatory movement in the Roman Catholic Church, (15th-16th century) that focused on independent worship and individual devotion and dedication to prayer.

Sassoferrato is pointed by many as the master of painting The Virgin In Prayer, as his many iterations of the image have been in use in Venice, London, Strasbourg, Stockholm and Bergamo. All of these iterations have the same figure and black background with slight variations, shading, additions such as a halo and other such shadows and coloration deepened or lightened.

The original that is located in the National Gallery, London, UK, has the most intense palette of ultramarine blue, red and white, with the background an deep, rich black. The way the folds of her robe gently touch her porcelain, luminous skin look life-like and almost drenched  in a sense of hyper-realism, with the shadows of the fabric drawn with precision along the lines of the angelic, bowed head, has the look of a photograph.

David Clayton from the online platform New Liturgical Movement had this to say, elucidating further on the themes of light and darkness: “This painting, like the painting of St Gregory the Great by Vignali described last week, is in the baroque style of the 17th century. Again, drawing on the themes from the Divine Office, we see the sharp contrast between light and dark, symbolizing the Light overcoming the darkness, and again like the Vignali painting, the face is in partial shadow, ensuring that this is distinct in style from a portrait (I described the reasons behind this in more detail in the earlier posting).”

As we see the sharp lines of light and darkness extenuated in a contrasting manner that almost feels shocking, the beauty of The Virgin’s deep ultramarine robe seems to sink all anxiety, fear and doubt into oblivion. One of the most expensive blues used by Renaissance painters, this hue of ultramarine is derived from the lapis lazuli stone from the mines of Afghanistan. This deep, rich blue symbolizes holiness, the Word of God and humility, Heaven and the sky.

I strongly feel that the overwhelming majority of the ultramarine used in this piece gives the impression not only of the implicit nature of The Virgin figure bowing her head in deep prayer, but of the mood of the piece itself. This piece gives off a very calming sense of love and humility, I feel. The deep, rich lapis lazuli that is enriched in The Virgin’s robes is like a deep breath of fresh air, of spiritual renewal. It is the mortality of our very nature that gives us the opportunity to keep ourselves in touch with our ego, our pride, and as such, we can find ourselves again in prayer with God.

2018 Mary in Prayer by Tyler Ballon

My impressions of the mid sixteenth century Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato  is one of deep contemplation for the inspiration of individual prayer. I feel that the simplistic mastery of limited coloration with deep shadow in the style of Baroque truly gives a powerful insight into the spiritual, healing nature of prayer.

In another piece I had written about modern Renaissance Religious art, I had found a singular artist I was truly astounded by in part by his skillful mastery of the Renaissance chiaroscuro, and by the way he recreated famous religious art in an original way.

Tyler Ballon created Mary in Prayer in 2018, and I can’t help but feel this beautiful piece recreates the simple love, grace and devotion of independent prayer. An African-American woman is seated with an open book of scriptures, as her eyes are focused and heavy in contemplation, looking heavenward, as her hands are at her sides and open. This is meant to represent her openly receiving the Holy Spirit.

I find that the iconic and truly radiant figure of The Virgin/Mary in both iterations of modern and 16th-17th century history to be truly inspired and utterly brimming with spiritual life and love. I urge you to look to both for guidance in your own spiritual spaces, and to seek comfort in that individual need for graceful devotional prayer.



About Melissa Ingoldsby
Melissa Ingoldsby is a 32 year old author for Resurgence Novels of her debut horror drama I am Bexley. She lives in the STL region and is avid reader of mystery, romance and horror, a cinema fan and part time writer for Vocal and has many self published books on Amazon. You can read more about the author here.

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