Madonna of the Harpies

Madonna of the Harpiesharpies

D’Ascenzo Studios crafted four large round “rose” windows for our church between 1909 and 1910. Their archives confirm that the one behind the altar depicts the Trinity, and the window in the choir loft shows St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, but the other two are unrecorded.

The window on the Mary side of our church is a “sacra conversazione,” or “sacred conversation,” showing Mary standing on a pedestal, holding Baby Jesus, with a saint on either side.  It is based on an Andrea del Sarto painting known as the Madonna of the Harpies  because of the birdlike human monsters,  resembling characters from Greek mythology, on the original column base (changed to a cross on a shield in our window).

That painting has its own odd history. Hanging in the Uffizi today, it was created in 1517 for the Poor Clares  Convent of  San Francesco dei Macci in Florence, which also sheltered “unhappily married women.” (aka women separated from their husbands, and victims of domestic violence). The original commission specified that St. Bonaventure — a Franciscan who valued study, as well as simplicity, poverty, and work —  should be painted on the left, but their patron Saint Francis of Assisi was ultimately placed there instead. Saint John the Evangelist was always on the right. No one knows why the “harpies” were included.  Some interpret the painting as depicting Mary’s Assumption or Coronation; others, as “the Virgin triumphant over evil.”

The mystery continues in our church. We don’t know why the painting was chosen for our stained glass window.

One curiosity comes to light: the contract for Andrea de Sarto’s original painting was signed on May 14, 1515. Our parish was founded on May 14, 1890. Is the similarity in dates significant? It’s possible. Imagery in the opposite window could be consistent with Our Lady of the Rosary, on whose feast day (October 6, 1907) our cornerstone was laid.

We’re still working on this one. Perhaps the biggest mystery is why we know so little about such an important decorative element in our church!


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