Our Lady of Mercy (Schutzmaria)

15th century
Parish church, Mariapfarr, Austria

This fresco is known locally as Schutzmaria. Schutz is German for "protection" or "refuge," which is certainly appropriate for the way the multitudes in Our Lady of Mercy images take refuge beneath her mantle. As an echo of the "refuge" idea, the artist places Mary before the entrance to a church. He also departs from the tradition of portraying the people in Mary's mantle as faithful Christians in religious habits or solid middle-class finery. Instead, they are naked souls who can only represent the sinners who need God's mercy.

The church façade and the naked souls are not found in other images in this genre. In Germany and Austria it is not uncommon for there to be a child in Mary's arms, but I know of no other work in which Our Lady of Mercy's "child" is a bearded miniature of Christ as seen in images of the Passion. His hips and thighs wear his burial shroud, his hands and feet bear the marks of the nails, and he engages the viewer with his eyes as he points to the gash in his side.

Together, the church entrance, the naked souls, and the wounded Christ make a bold departure from the usual iconography of Our Lady of Mercy. They point to Christ as the true source of mercy, to the souls of sinners as its true object, and to t.he Church as an alternative way of expressing the refuge of sinners. It is not that the Virgin Mary is being slighted: she is still the main figure, and the traditional angels are still according her the traditional crown. Rather, the fresco widens the scope of the genre and makes its theology more specific and immediate.

The two figures outside the mantle are probably the donors.

A number of churches in Germany and Austria are named Maria Schutz, and some of them have statues and altarpieces featuring Our Lady of Mercy that follow the canonical pattern except for having the Virgin hold an infant in her arms.

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Photographed at the church by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.