Giovanni Battista Salvi, called Sassoferrato after his town of birth in the Marches region of central Italy, was a Baroque master who specialised in pious devotional images of the Virgin Mary and the infant Christ. It is difficult to place Sassoferrato’s work within a regional school. As well as painting in the Marches, Perugia and Rome, he was influenced by his great love of copying from earlier masters from many regions – artists such as the great German painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer and the Italian masters Titian and, above all, Raphael.
In 1641, the year in which Sassoferrato is first documented as working in Rome, the influence of Caravaggio (who had died thirty years earlier) remained strong, while the great sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini was still engaged in extensive architectural and sculptural works for Pope Urban VIII. It is tempting to see echoes of both these masters in the sharply defined shadows (chiaroscuro) and in the sculptural modelling of this Madonna in prayer, which is a classic example of an artist’s response to the renewed emphasis that the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church placed on the importance of devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Placed adjacent to a sickbed or installed near a prie-dieu (a piece of furniture on which a person knelt to pray), a Madonna such as this could act as a powerful aid to prayer and meditation. This painting relates to a number of versions of this subject that Sassoferrato made for the flourishing devotional market of Counter-Reformation Rome, and that are generally datable to c.1640–50.
Text by Dr Ted Gott from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 58.