Above are two versions of the same icon: on the right the original
state it was restored to in 1990, when the silver template and several
layers of re-painting were removed. On the left is the way it was
presented since 1853, when popular devotion wanted the Madonna and
child, as well as parts of Saint Francis of Assisi covered in silver
plating and studded with precious stones. The practical reason behind
this may have been to protect the icon from the touches and kisses
of pilgrims. However, the occasion seems to have been seen as an
opportunity to augment the glory of the sacred image and to give
the silversmith free artistic range. So he undressed Jesus and made
him sit like a baby rather than stand like a toddler. He made Mary
stand up from her throne, but gave her a more royal outfit in compensation.
He tied Saint Francis’ belt further up, making it look like
a cane. Then he disappeared the figure of a kneeling young man whom
Saint Francis recommends to the Virgin. Most likely this is the
person who commissioned the work, possibly a certain Marquis Francisco
Maria Beccardelli of Bologna, who probably wanted this painting
for his personal chapel in his palace and ordered it from a Tuscan
I agree that the Marquis distracts from the spiritul power of the
painting and it seems a bit presumptuous for the painter to dress
him in the colors of Jesus and Mary. However, it seems equally as
presumptuous to change the character of the image that dramatically
and to alter every part of it.
This Mother of God is also called the Madonna of Loreto. I suppose
she is meant to be a copy or variation of that other, much more
famous Black Madonna. As in Loreto, baby Jesus stands upright on
his Mother’s knee with a similar fold of her mantel under
him and his hand raised in blessing. The silver mantel also shows
a certain similarity to the Loreto brocade mantel.
Like any real Black Madonna, the Madonna della Milicia is considered
a miraculous image and, it seems, as such she needed a good legend
of origination. Here is the story people tell:
She was a gift (from God) to the people of Milicia, coming to them
from a Corsican pirate ship. The vessel was miraculously prevented
from continuing its route on the sea off the coast of Milicia. The
sacred icon didn’t allow the ship to proceed because the disrespectful
crew had used it as a cover for a barrel. Only once Our Lady was
passed into good and devout hands could she ship be moved again.
In a spiritual rescue mission of sorts, her devotees carried this
treasure to land and placed it in an ox cart. Without any interference
from the people, the oxen took the sacred image to the chapel where
it wanted to be venerated. Gradually the original building became
the present sanctuary.
The template that covered the painting for 137 years.