Ludovico Carracci
The Madonna and Child with Saints

Oil on copper
Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Renaissance it was common for artists to have the child hold a bird or fruit that would presage his sacrifice on the Cross. Carracci uses a sheaf of wheat for the same purpose, recalling John 12:24-25a, "Amen, amen I say to you, unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit."

One advantage of the wheat metaphor is that in many gospel passages it distinguishes those who have been faithful from those who have not. In Matthew 3:12, for example, John the Baptist proclaims that God's "fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus adopts the "barn" and "fire" imagery in his parable of the weeds among the wheat, which concludes, "Gather up first the cockle, and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn" (Matthew 13:30). Thus the "much fruit" that Christ's sacrifice brings forth is the faithful whom he gathers into his "barn."1

The various figures in the painting can be identified by their attributes. For Mary, it is the blue mantle over a red dress. The man in the white habit kneeling before Mary is St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who was especially devoted to her. St. Peter stands behind him with his keys. Behind Peter is St. Andrew, identified by his messy hair. At Peter's right, with the sword as his attribute, is St. Paul. The woman in the crown is St. Catherine of Alexandria, identified by both the crown and the fragment of a broken wheel visible at her knee.

The unidentified saint on Catherine's right holds a palm branch marking her as a martyr, like all the worshippers in the painting except Bernard.

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

1 Also see patristic commentary on the Wheat Among the Weeds parable collected in the Catena, II, 494-502.