Our experiment [in visual ecumenism] took the form of a Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). The image has a longstanding history in this region of Italy. But our aim was not just to study the history of the image, but to contribute to that history ourselves.


The year 2017, and the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation with it, has come and gone. Germany tour coupons have expired, Luther artifacts have returned to their home museums, celebratory volumes have been printed, and the Reformation specialist speaking circuits have finally wound down. The church, of course, remains divided. Some even speak of a chilling of inter-Christian concord, an extension of what many have called “ecumenical winter.” It is a tone well expressed in Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory's closing words to the two volume catalogue of the magnificent Minneapolis Museum of Art’s Luther exhibition: “Luther's stand created the skepticism he wanted to avoid. Where to stand now? Wherever.”

But international possibilities complicate primarily American conversations. In the summer of 2016, with the quincentennial of the Reformation in view, Gordon College’s program in Orvieto, Italy, decided to give receptive ecumenism another try. And so, we made a Madonna. Or more accurately, we made another one. Already there had been considerable ecumenical efforts in this regard in this hilltop Italian town. Under the generous patronage of the Augustinian friar and beloved former Catholic bishop Giovanni Scanavino, international conferences had brought Protestants and Catholics into serious conversation. These controversial initiatives resulted in an astonishing procession: When a local Catholic woman who had served as a model for a painting of the Virgin Mary by artist Bruce Herman tragically died in childbirth, the town of Orvieto witnessed what might have been a first in Christian history: A Catholic woman being mourned through a procession of an image of the Virgin Mary painted by an American evangelical college professor. [Michelle Arnold Paine's moving essay about this remarkable young woman can be read on this website.]

A New Madonna of Mercy

Lippo Memmi,  Madonna della Misericordia  (c. 1320) in the Chapel of the Holy Corporal in the Orvieto Duomo

Lippo Memmi, Madonna della Misericordia (c. 1320) in the Chapel of the Holy Corporal in the Orvieto Duomo

To continue this tradition of ecumenical risk, Orvieto program director Matt Doll invited Bruce Herman and myself to bring a studio art and art history class together, a collaboration which would result in another painting that questioned traditional Christian divisions. Our efforts went well with recent appreciations of Luther’s view of beauty, vindications of the Reformer’s view of incongruous grace, alongside what has been called an ecumenism of beauty or ecumenism in the arts.  Our experiment took the form of a Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy). The image has a longstanding history in this region of Italy, a history exhaustively explored by Katherine Brown’s gorgeous monograph on the subject. But our aim was not just to study the history of the image, but to contribute to that history ourselves.


We had four short weeks to create the painting. Research, design, construction, and installation all needed to occur within this time frame. Our fantastic group of students were divided into an art history class taught by me, in which we read the Beneficio di Cristo, the illegal devotional manual that disseminated proto-Protestant ideas in Italy, and which influenced Michelangelo and Vittoria Colonna (whose Orvieto connection is described in Damon DiMauro's three-part essay on this website). The studio art class was taught by Bruce Herman. The art historians shared with the studio artists what we were learning in our classroom, and the bottega (Italian for art studio) shared with us whether what we were learning could practically fit into an altarpiece.


It should be remembered that the Madonna of Mercy, with Mary sheltering Christians under her garment, is one of the least Protestant images imaginable. In one version, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) just before the Reformation began, the faithful are shielded from the arrows of God the Father by Mary’s protective garment, while Jesus stands not very helpfully to the side. But because we visited Piero della Francecsa’s famous example of the Mary of Mercy on an excursion, and Lippo Memmi's version is as close as the Orvieto Duomo, and considering we were living in monastery once inhabited by the Friar Servants of Mary, known as the Servites, we felt we had no choice but to adopt this very Catholic image. We named the image The Madonna of the Chapter House, after the room where Servite monks once corporately gathered, and where Gordon College students still do today.

Looking Back

While we hope that the image, to a certain extent, speaks for itself, a few comments are in order to clarify our intention. First off, following a very ancient art historical tradition, we included living figures in the painting, including some participants and the instructors of our course. Most of the people depicted in the painting protested their inclusion (myself especially!), but we finally resigned to permit ourselves to be depicted - not as a selfie with Mary, but as representations of the living church, which is what the Madonna of Mercy image is primarily about. We realize that there are some who would argue that Protestants do not belong under the banner of the true ecclesia. But well, there we are. Mary shelters us too.

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Beyond the group under Mary’s garment on the right is Professor John Skillen, the founder of the program in Orvieto, holding a book. He represents the Benedictine order, and seems to be sliding down the zebra-pattern Orvieto Duomo. To the left is program director, Professor Matthew Doll. He represents the Franciscan order, alongside the works of nature represented by Umbrian farms. Overall, the right and left sides display the proper (and ever elusive!) relationship between structure and spirit, nature and culture, deans and professors, institution-building and prophetic critique. Both are necessary. Needless to say, the inability to retain this balance - through the fault of both parties - is what led to the divisions of the Reformation in the first place.


But there is another dimension to our inclusion of St. Francis as well. The excessive polemics of sixteenth-century prints, what Carlos Eire calls the “saturation carpet bombing” of Reformation propaganda was so extreme in Luther’s time that even Francis was caught in the crossfire. In one particularly nasty print by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), Francis was mocked as an ineffective mediator before a furious Father raining wrath on the indulgence trade. But as the evangelical historian Tim Larsen points out, Francis may have been more committed to the classic evangelical distinctives (biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism) than any evangelical who has ever lived. Accordingly, our positive inclusion of the great Francesco was one attempt to make amends for undeniable Protestant mistakes.

Michelangelo's drawing is one of the treasures in the  Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum  in Boston.

Michelangelo's drawing is one of the treasures in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

Perhaps the most notable part of the images is that Christ is under Mary’s garment along with students and professors. Here we liberally quoted from Michelangelo’s pièta for Vittoria Colonna. As Alexander Nagel has argued, the exchange of poetic and artistic gifts between Colonna and Michelangelo offered an alternative to the “prevailing system of works, indulgences, and ‘endowments’ in which art production had become so centrally implicated.” Michelangelo’s gift of this particular drawing to Colonna represented the gift of God’s free, unmerited grace and the new birth of faith. The image suggests that even Mary, who gave birth to God, was also born again by faith. We are well aware that Michelangelo and Colonna’s involvement in reform circles does not make them “Protestants” per se (which was illegal), but their comparative sympathy to Reformation currents is very solid indeed. Both figures were members of the Spirituali, the Italian reform movement that sought Catholic rapprochement with Protestant ideas without dividing the church, a movement which also offers much to those hoping for the healing of that division today.


By placing Christ underneath Mary we have admittedly offered a Protestant correction to the Madonna of Mercy motif, but it needs be kept in mind we are not the first to suggest such an amendment. In sixteenth-century Basel, as the Reformation swept through the area of modern Switzerland, the artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) painted his own Madonna of Mercy. But instead of Mary being the dispenser of grace, as she is in Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks, it is Jesus who offers the blessing instead. Holbein could not continue this fruitful motif, however, because Reformed iconoclasts soon put him out of a job, and he fled north to paint Erasmus and Henry VIII. And so, in our Christ-centered Madonna of Mercy, we simply picked up where Holbein left off.

Looking East

The Orthodox tradition sometimes stands aloof from Protestant/Catholic infighting, but we managed to drag them in as well. After all, as historian Ron Rittgers observes, “Perhaps the larger goal of 2017 should be to prepare the way for 2054 when Christians will observe the millennial anniversary of the tragic, unnecessary schism between Catholics and the Orthodox.”

The Pokrov (Protection of the Mother of God) icon, Novgorod, 1399

The Pokrov (Protection of the Mother of God) icon, Novgorod, 1399

Accordingly, we brought in the beloved Orthodox tradition of the “Pokrov Icon,” celebrating when Mary appeared in Constantinople, spreading her veil in a sign of protection (the red cloth above her head). There is a wonderful resonance between the Catholic Madonna of Mercy’s protective garment, and Mary’s protective veil in the Orthodox tradition – and in our image that blanketing love extends to Protestants as well.

But there are divisions within the Orthodox world that we aimed to address as well. We therefore included the oft-neglected Oriental Orthodox communions by depicting the modern martyrs of the Oriental Orthodox Church, beheaded on the shore of Libya by ISIL on February 12, 2015. These figures, to which we are united in what Pope Francis calls an ecumenism of blood, can be understood as a modern version of the forty martyrs of Sebaste. But in our image, the murder is more immediate than we might like. It happens not in a distant place, but on the front pavement of the Servite monastery that houses the Gordon program in Orvieto. The connection to the current refugee crisis is deliberate, and the tents are not dissimilar from Marc Chagall’s employment of them in his White Crucifixion of 1938.

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Looking South

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But we went further than this in an attempt to include the booming church of the Global South. Karen Bergman, who was assistant director of the Gordon program in Italy as we created our image, spoke movingly of her experience at the Third Lausanne Congress in South Africa that resulted in the Cape Town Commitment. Karen’s role as a volunteer was to work the translation booth. She was the first face these Christians from around the world saw, and as anyone who has met Karen knows, she has the gift of hospitality. And so, we made a difficult choice. It was tempting to insert an artificial diversity into our image that did not accurately reflect our community. But instead we used Karen’s face as the face of welcome to other parts of the Body of Christ, because of her experience in South Africa. This may not be satisfying enough for some, but it was more important for us to be honest about where we are than to pretend we have arrived.

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Notice, however, that Karen is distinguished from the historical Mary in the background, about whom we know so little. "God has revealed very little to us about her," writes Thomas Merton, and "hers is the most hidden of sanctities." The point of the juxtaposition is straightforward enough: Every ordinary Christian is called to be Marian in one dimension or another, which far from being controversial, is a hallmark of the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions. We may not yet be able to eat together, but we can agree with St. John Paul II when he writes that “there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord.”

Finally, viewers of the Madonna of the Chapter House will not miss the threefold rose that represents the Trinity. We had Canto XXXIII of Dante's Paradiso in mind here: “Within your womb was lit once more the flame/ Of that love through whose warmth this flower opened / To its full bloom in everlasting peace.”  But of course, rose symbolism has also been used by Protestants, whether the Luther rose which has long represented the Reformer, George MacDonald (“the fire was a huge heap of roses,” Phantastes) or T.S. Eliot (“the fire and the rose are one,” Little Gidding). That there are three of these roses is a subtle evocation, as opposed to direct representation, of the mystery of the Trinity.

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But lest this all be teetering toward the theology of glory of which Luther was rightfully suspicious, we capped off our image with an inescapable reminder of the theology of the cross. The angel with the instruments of the Passion above allude to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a Catholic icon at St. Alphonsus Ligouri in Rome, which originated as an Orthodox image on the island of Cyprus in 1192, where it was known as The Virgin of the Passion. In its original form, this icon was an Orthodox Christian response to the violence of the Crusades, evoking a non-triumphalist faith of suffering Christian love. The history of the Virgin of the Passion icon, now embedded in the Madonna of the Chapter House, is tangible evidence that God can repurpose the most aggressive Christian violence no less surely than he redeemed the violence of Calvary.

Looking Forward: Our Lady of 2054

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Art, of course, is no substitute for sacramental communion. It is an appetizer at best. But we did share many appetizers at the opening reception for the Madonna of the Chapter House in 2016, when we invited the Catholic townspeople to come see our response to their own Madonna of Mercy in the Orvieto Cathedral, even if we cannot commune in that Cathedral ourselves. Since then our image stood watch in Orvieto through the five-hundredth anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. It might even stand watch over a different anniversary, marking one thousand years of schism between Catholic and Orthodox Christians in 2054.

The mystery of Christian disunity – whether the fractures of 431 and 451 (the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon), 1054 (the Great Schism) or 1517 (the Reformation) - is not something any singular shifting of personal allegiance can solve. "All Christians must be considered schismatics," continues Rittgers, "no Christian church is immune from this accusation, including Catholics and the Orthodox..." To ask a Protestant to "choose" between the conflicting claims of the Catholic or Orthdox churches presents an "impossible choice between two mothers." Our verbal theological systems demand consistency, but as Stephen Long puts it, “Our divisions should never be rendered intelligible, and we should never be satisfied with them. They are, and always will be, like evil itself, puzzling, enigmatic and absurd.” Some may hasten to a premature wedding feast, convinced the whole church subsists inviolate in one particular communion. It is hard to begrudge such excitement. Others of us are waiting to attend the wedding feast, “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God….” (Ephesians 4:13).

But that doesn't mean we can't work on the décor.


Matthew J. Milliner is Associate Professor of Art History at Wheaton College (IL).
More about Dr. Milliner can be found on his website.

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Matt Doll: program director / design
Bruce Herman: maestro painter
Karen Bergman: assistant to director / Mary model
Matt Milliner: art historian
John Skillen: founding program director

Student artists/art historians:
Michael Degenero, Sara Golden, Lexi Carlson, Tiffany Gong, Annika Schultz, William Bruno, Katie Bracy, Ellen Bazzoli, Rachel Goliher, Natalie Haleen, Nathan Tarr, Amy Tews, Emma Wagner, Daniel Simonds, Skylie Dozier, Emmeline Zhu

Thanks to Greg Schreck, professor of photography at Wheaton College and guest teacher for the Orvieto program, for permission to use (and crop) his photographs of the new Madonna della Misericordia painting.