The art essay

Virgin and Child with Saints Simon and Jude (c. 1567) by Federico Fiori Barocci

The Council of Trent gave impetus to a new trajectory for the Church, stirring up her evangelical fervor. The proponents of this Catholic Reformation, convinced of the missionary nature of the Church, sought to proclaim the Gospel in a way that would at once resonate with the modern spirit and stay vitally connected to the evangelical tradition of the Faith. Newly founded missionary orders brought the Gospel to foreign lands; lay confraternities dedicated themselves to charitable and spiritual works; a spirituality founded on the sacraments, the Mass, and devotional prayer abounded; and in a preeminent way, the fine arts—literature, music, and the visual arts—were harnessed to communicate the Faith and the essence of the Church in this new era.

Art and evangelization

While artistic developments of the preceding centuries had lent new communicative power to the artist, criticism was justly leveled against art that was occasionally more concerned with virtuosity of technique and sumptuousness of figures than devotion and solemnity. But art could not be dismissed as part of this reform—rather, it had to be honed. In the spirit of authentic Catholic evangelization, art would need to strike a harmonious chord with traditional form and modern technique to reach everybody—the literate as well as the illiterate, the aesthete as well as the mystic—at once ravishing the viewer with delight and leading him to spiritual contemplation.

Producing such authentic Catholic art required artists to unite two poles of a dynamic—the beautiful and enchanting with the devout and decorous. It was a task to which Federico Fiori Barocci proved uniquely suited. Born in 1535 in the city of Urbino, Barocci spent much of his life in the surroundings of his native city, but he made an important journey to Rome in the period leading up to the Council. In the Eternal City, he began to make his mark on the new artistic current of the Catholic Reformation. Standing upon the shoulders of the great artists of the tradition that preceded him, Barocci commanded the greatest of their powers: the subtlety and powerful design of Raphael; the charm of Correggio; the sfumato of Leonardo; and the rich palette and painterly strokes of Titian. Significantly, in addition to his technical abilities, Barocci also drew from his profound piety formed by Franciscan spirituality. Thus armed with masterful artistic ability and deep devotion, he announced the Gospel, not with rhetoric from the pulpit, but in the language of painting, with brush and canvas.

A dramatic exchange

Barocci’s painting of the Madonna di San Simone for the Church of Saint Francis in Urbino offered an opportunity to depict a sacra conversazione, a traditional devotional model, with an innovative approach. While many such depictions feature monumental figures rapt in still contemplation, here Barocci deploys a dramatic vision of the Apostle Saints Simon and Jude as they beckon the viewer to join them and delight in the vision of the Madonna and Christ Child.

Gazing lovingly upon the fleshy Infant Jesus—who squirms playfully in his Mother’s lap as he turns the page of her devotional reading—Saint Simon’s eyes glisten as his left hand rests languidly upon a saw, the instrument of his martyrdom. Adding to the delight of Saint Simon, a corpulent cherub descends upon the Madonna, sweeping dramatically toward her while bearing a delicate floral crown. Below, Saint Jude turns swiftly and his voluminous outer garment whirls about him. Elegant fabrics display vibrant tones of crimson, gold, pumpkin, sage, and blue, enveloping the central figures in a rich palette and accentuating them against the subdued beige and browns of their sylvan backdrop.

The architectural framework of the scene is intentionally understated, establishing a continuous space and dynamic communication between the subjects in the painting as well as with the world of the viewer. This continuity of space is reinforced by the flowing draperies, tossed about by the wind, that set the composition in a gentle, undulating motion that seems to spill forth beyond the confines of the canvas. The sfumato brush strokes of the composition give way to sharp focus in the features of the saints. As Saint Jude turns about from adoring the Virgin and Child, his piercing gaze captivates viewers and invites us to share this joyful exchange.

Encountering Christ in the flesh

This painting embodies the essential qualities of modern art in the vein of the Catholic Reformation: its vibrant palette, masterful brush strokes, sensitive modeling of figures and skin tones, and clarity of design coalesce in a composition that is at once solemn, contemplative, and ravishing to behold. Yet Barocci invites the viewer to gaze upon Christ not only through the medium of paint, but in concrete reality. The tip of Saint Jude’s halberd leads to a void in the painting, indicated also by the foot of Saint Simon and the curved index finger of the patron below. When this painting adorned the side chapel for which it was commissioned, the Eucharistic Host would have filled this space and completed the composition at the elevation during Mass. In this space, painterly beauty and sacramental sign converge in one compelling and ecstatic vision.

Through his masterful painterly technique, Barocci unites solemn devotion with evocative beauty in this sacra conversazione. In so doing he offers more than a dramatic depiction of the saints: he engages the mission of the Church through the language of art in the manner heralded by the Catholic Reformation. Saints Simon and Jude proclaimed the Gospel in Asia Minor where they ultimately bore witness to Christ through their martyrdom. The drive of the Apostolic mandate and the core of the Gospel they proclaimed was to lead the nations to an encounter with the Emmanuel and Redeemer, Christ in his flesh. Barocci follows in the evangelical mission tread first by these great Apostles as he brings the Gospel ad gentes—to the people—inviting all to an encounter with the same Christ, not merely in paint or in word, but in his very flesh through the Eucharist.

Father Garrett Ahlers

Parochial vicar and teacher of Church history

Virgin and Child with Saints Simon and Jude (Madonna di San Simone) (c. 1567), Federico Fiori Barocci (1535–1612), Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy. © akg-images / Mondadori Portfolio / Sergio Anelli.