The image of the Madonna enfolding the faithful under her protective cloak is known as the “Madonna of Mercy.” The term refers to the Virgin Mary’s role in Catholic theology as an intercessor, always ready to plead to Christ for mercy on behalf of those in physical or spiritual distress. In the Middle Ages, the subject was especially popular among members of monastic orders and charitable lay fraternities. In this sculpture, the Madonna shelters members of the spiritual estate: a pope, a cardinal, and a bishop can be identified by their distinctive hats. On the other side are representatives of the secular estate, including an emperor and knights. Held high in Mary’s arms, the Christ Child makes a gesture of blessing and holds an apple, symbolizing his role as the “New Adam” who redeems humankind from the consequences of sin.
Mary’s white gown is lined with blue and adorned with gold fleurs-de-lis (“lily flowers”), symbols of purity. She stands on a crescent moon from which a layer of silver leaf has all but worn away, revealing the red preparatory layer beneath the metal; what remains of the silver has darkened. The moon refers to Mary’s role as Queen of Heaven and also reflects the vision of the “Apocalyptic Woman” described in the Revelation of St. John: “A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).