“Virgin Mary in Glory, and Saints” in Saint Gervasio and Protasio´s Cathedral
In 1507, the canons ( = community of priests) of the Cathedral in Castel della Pieve (currently Città della Pieve) commissioned Perugino, who was born precisely there, to paint the altarpiece for the high altar in their cathedral.
The artist and the canons had signed a contract on April 14, 1507, but the work would be consigned no sooner than 1514. The date is indicated in an inscription in the painting itself, that is signed Pietro di Cristoforo Vannucci di Castel della Pieve, “Pietro/Peter, the son of Cristoforo/Christopher Vannucci, from Castel della Pieve.” The artist wrote down the name of both his father, his family, and his hometown as if he meant to remain well recognizable by the future generations too.
After a restoration the church underwent in the 16th century, the altarpiece is now set in the cathedral´s apse.
Subject and structure
This Virgin Mary in Glory, and Saints is a wood panel in which Mary and her Child, together with the Saints Gervasio, Protasio, Peter, and Paul are portrayed.
The Mother of God, clad in red and blue, is seated in heaven. The Infant Jesus, sitting in his turn on her left leg, blesses the Saints who appear below. Perugino set Mother and Son inside an almond-shaped frame: it was an ancient symbol of life and rebirth, since the almond tree is the one that first blossoms in Spring.
The four saints are depicted on earth, side by side. In the middle are Peter with the key of heaven and Paul holding a long sword and a red book, with reference to his Letters.
On the far sides we see Gervasio e Protasio, the patron saints of Città della Pieve, whose cathedral is in fact dedicated to them. They hold poles in their hands, which support flags with the town´s emblem, namely a white castle on a red background. Under their feet, a floor decorated with geometrical figures imitates the floor of a church. Behind them a parapet can be made out, that is where the inscription with the date and signature was made.
Two refined flying angels, on the far sides beyond Virgin Mary and Jesus, give the final touch to this absolutely Peruginesque composition; and a luminous one as well, thanks to the clear sky in the background.
The story of Gervasio and Protasio
The martyrs Gervasio and Protasio were brothers; they lived and died in Milan in the third century AD. Their bodies were found again by Saint Ambrose after a presentiment, as he tells in a letter to his sister. They were then transferred into the church that would later become Saint Ambrose´s Basilica in Milan–--a building whose construction had been decided by the Saint himself when he was the town´s bishop.
And there, one urn contains the mortal remains of both Gervasio, Protasio, and Ambrose.