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The Redemption of Eve
An edicola on the house of Francesco Melanzio


[image ALT: A painting of a robed woman, crowned and haloed with stars, standing on a crescent moon amidst clouds and surrounded by angels. It is a close‑up view of a madonnina, or wayside shrine depicting the Virgin Mary, on the outskirts of Montefalcoon the outskirts of Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]

Barely two hundred meters beyond the Porta Camiano, the east gate of Montefalco, is a farmhouse that once belonged to Francesco Melanzio, a local painter of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century; and the visitor seeking out the house for that association is happily surprised to find the attractive edicola you see above, in a niche on the front of the apparently untenanted farmhouse.

Depicting the Virgin Mary as the Immaculate Conception, with an angel, a Franciscan saint, and the figure of a woman below, it is not by Melanzio mind you — that would be too much, although a Madonna attributed to him can be seen just 4 km away, in Fabbri at the foot of the hill — but the work of some later time; the question is when, exactly.


[image ALT: A painting of a woman with long hair pointing upwards with her right hand. Above her, a snake appears to climb away from her to coil itself around a crescent moon. It is a detail of the fresco on a madonnina, or wayside shrine depicting the Virgin Mary, on the outskirts of Montefalco, Umbria (central Italy).]
The little niche itself helps us out, if only slightly. The Edicole Sacre page (see navigation bar below) records three inscriptions — that I regret to say I failed to observe — with dates spanning two centuries: 1954, 1854, and, the only one with a month and day, the 28th of September 1756.

That page also goes on to identify the woman at the bottom as Eve, presumably on iconographic grounds although she appears to be dressed, which would be very unusual for Eve. We would thus have an illustration of a classic theme dating back to Justin Martyr and the 2c A.D.: just as Christ was the second Adam, so Mary was the second Eve, female humanity redeemed by freely submitting to the divine will. The interpretation seems to be supported by the snake twining around the moon under Mary's feet, and its tail just a few millimeters from the other woman's head.

The snake, though, is part and parcel of the iconography of the Immaculate Conception, or at least has been since the late 17c; and here in fact we have the now standard representation of the central subject as favored by Pope Pius IX: Mary is robed in white and mantled in blue, crowned with stars, stands on a crescent moon and crushes the snake with her foot: stars, moon and snake are so standard that Mary is sometimes represented by them alone, as in this roughly contemporary altar in Todi, just fifteen miles W of here. At any rate, what we see above hews so close to the standard modern image that it's tempting to take the second date, 1854, as that of the fresco: only two years before, on December 8, 1852, Pius had proclaimed the Immaculate Conception as dogma for all Catholic faithful.

On balance though, give me 1756 as the date of our madonnina, with 1854 the date of a restoration in response to the newly promulgated dogma. The style of the painting is much more characteristic of the 18c than of the 19c; although I admit that either an intentional pastiche, or an artist very much behind the times in conservative rural Umbria might fault that argument. Three other reasons, however, suggest the earlier date more forcefully, at least to me.

Representations of the Immaculate Conception since Pius IX usually show the Virgin as the sole subject: clouds and angels, but no additional figures. Here, though, the norm hasn't gelled yet: we have an angel, and the woman at the foot of the composition, and, leading me to my next point, a Franciscan saint, very likely St. Francis himself, although I could not see the stigmata that usually distinguish him iconographically.

Before the Immaculate Conception became Catholic dogma, the theological idea had its proponents and detractors, and the issue was one of many in which the Dominicans and the Franciscans squared off: the former were against, the latter for. The presence of a Franciscan saint here suggests that the debate was not absolutely closed — although several popes, as far as back as Sixtus IV (1471‑1484) had issued bulls on the subject — and that this was a way for the landowner to say, "I'm on the Franciscan side".

Finally, that exact date, September 28, 1756. It is surely either the date the edicola was completed; or it may commemorate the birth or death of the fourth figure in the composition, the woman who might also be identified as Eve.

And so we come back to our elusive fourth figure. As I read the scene we see in front of us, we have a prayer for intercession, maybe by the widower or sons of our Umbrian woman. She prays to the Virgin in heaven, the model of redeemed humanity: about that there is no argument; but the angel and St. Francis are showing the way and also interceding for her. Not Eve, then, but a farmwoman from Montefalco: no less sinful, as we are all, and no less redeemed.


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Page updated: 3 Feb 10