In Siena the long-standing devotion for the Virgin found renewed strength after the battle of Montaperti when, in 1260, the Sienese army defeated its Florentine counterpart. Prior to the battle, the Sienese carried the icon of the Virgin in procession through the streets of the city and invoked her special protection.
Although outnumbered, the Sienese army achieved an outstanding victory, and further to this unexpected success, the keys of the city of Siena were donated to the Virgin in a sumptuous ceremony. The rituals that ensued in front of the image of the Madonna del Voto, on the main altar of the cathedral, must not have be much different from what the viewers can now see represented in this Biccherna painting displayed in the Archivio di Stato of Siena, where the clergy and the authorities are portrayed in the act of offering the keys of the city to the Virgin.
Biccherna 41, The Rendering of the keys to the Virgin, 1483, Siena, Archivio di Stato
The painting represents yet another such occasion that occurred on 22nd March 1483, when the unification of the four Monti (or political factions) was celebrated. The image of the Virgin reaching out of the painting frame to receive the keys epitomizes her importance in the creation of the identity of Siena as “city of the Virgin”.
The outbreak of Black Death that ravaged the city in 1348 killed thousands of people, including one of the most important artists of his times, Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The plague struck Siena many times after that in 1363, 1374, 1383, 1389, 1399-1400 and 1410-11.
Throughout the centuries images of the Virgin were commissioned to furnish altars and chapels in churches and civic buildings alike. The façade of the Spedale (hospital), a charitable civic institution established for the care of orphaned children, pilgrims and travellers as well as the sick and poor, was no exception. The hospital building is significantly located in front of the cathedral, which is dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption (Maria Assunta). The façade of the hospital displayed a fresco narrative with four episodes from the Life of the Virgin (now lost) commissioned from Simone Martini, and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti in c. 1335.
Inside the hospital there is a spectacular series of fresco images showing the activities of the hospital.
Domenico di Bartolo, Caring for the Sick, 1440, detail from the Pellegrinaio of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
Lorenzo di Pietro (known as Vecchietta), detail from the Vision of St. Sorore, with the Virgin welcoming infants climbing to Heaven on the ladder (scala) that is the symbol of the Hospital, 1441, Pellegrinaio of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.
Countless instances of the community turning to the Virgin at challenging times have been recorded by historians of Siena, and this tradition continues today.
On 15 March 2020 the current mayor of Siena, Luigi De Mossi, donated the keys of the city to the Madonna del Voto in the cathedral during a special mass behind closed doors that was celebrated by the Archbishop of Siena, Augusto Paolo Lojudice, to ask for the Virgin’s special protection at this difficult time.
The Biccherne of the Archivio di Stato of Siena
Beyond the Palio: Urbanism and Ritual in Renaissance Siena, ed. P. Jackson and F. Nevola (Boxford: Blackwell, 2006).
D. Norman, Painting in Medieval and Renaissance Siena (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003).
D. Norman, Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999).