The iconography of the Virgin of Mercy, in which she offers protection to supplicants under the cloth of a voluminous cloak or mantle, was first developed in Italy in the late Middle Ages. The theme appealed to lay confraternities, which often commissioned artists to represent their members sheltering under the Virgin’s cloak, seeking mercy for their sins and divine assistance with their daily lives.
In Muñoz’s treatment, Mary’s white scapular bears the insignia of the Mercedarians (founded in 1213), which suggests that the figures of spiritual and temporal authority under her cloak are connected to the history of this Order. The Pope in the left foreground is probably Gregory IX (1145–1241), who formally recognized the Order in 1238, while the Cardinal immediately behind is St Raymond Nonnatus (1175–1275), its second Master General. Conversely, the friar wearing the white robes of the Order on the far right is likely to be its founder, St Peter Nolasco (see ‘Love and Devotion’, 6).
On the right the artist has depicted two kings, one in a prominent position in the foreground, and another further back in the shadow. These could potentially represent James I of Aragon (1208–76), who, according to legend, had been asked by the Virgin Mary in a dream to found the Mercedarian Order in conjunction with Peter Nolasco and Ferdinand III of Castile (1201?–52), who led a military campaign to end Islamic rule in Spain and whose canonization was actively promoted in the period when this image was created (see ‘People and Places’, 2).
The painting is signed at lower left by Pedro Muñoz, a painter about whom little is known beyond this canvas. That said, the artist’s style bears some similarities to that of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598–1664), who painted the Virgin of Mercy on several occasions, most notably for the Carthusians at the Charterhouse of Santa María de las Cuevas, a work now in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville.
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The Virgin of Mercy.
Pedro Muñoz (active 1640–50).
Medium and Support
Oil on canvas.
190.2 x 270.8 cm.
Marks and Inscriptions
Signed lower left, ‘P.o Muñoz. ft.’.
Bequeathed by John and Joséphine Bowes, 1885.
Francisco Javier de Quinto y Cortés (1810–60), Count of Quinto; his posthumous sale, Paris, 25 July 1862; acquired by John and Joséphine Bowes.
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, B.M.69.
Eric Young, Catalogue of Spanish Paintings in the Bowes Museum, 2nd ed. (Middlesborough: The Bowes Museum, 1988), pp. 100–05;
Tom Stammers, Véronique Gerard Powell & Toby Osborne, ‘John and Joséphine Bowes as Collectors’, in Spanish Art in County Durham, ed. Clare Baron & Andy Beresford (Bishop Auckland: Auckland Castle Trust, The Bowes Museum, & Durham University, 2014), pp. 46–55;
Mercedes Cerón, ‘Virgin of Mercy’, https://vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28687/rec/1 [accessed: 18.07.22].