The Virgin of Mercy is a subject in Catholic art, showing a group of people sheltering for protection under the outspread cloak of the Virgin Mary. It was especially popular in Italy from the 13th to 16th centuries, often as a specialised form of votive portrait, and is also found in other countries and later art, especially Catalonia and Latin America. In Italian it is known as the Madonna della Misericordia (Madonna of Mercy), in German as the Schutzmantelmadonna (Sheltering-cloak Madonna), and in French as the Vièrge au Manteau or Vierge de Miséricorde (Virgin with a cloak or Virgin of Mercy).
Between the 8th and the 15th centuries, medieval Europe was in a state of ongoing war with the expanding Moslem world. Christians took up arms to defend against the advance of Mohammed’s disciples. Arabs successfully managed to subjugate North Africa, most of Spain, southern France and took over Sicily making the Mediterranean, previously a Roman lake, now a Moslem one. In Christian lands, in the daily conflicts of this secular struggle, Saracens plundered all that could be transported: animals, provisions, fabrics, precious metals, money and especially men, women and children who would be sold as slaves for a good price. Privateering and piracy on the Mediterranean sea were aggressive and violent means used by Moslems to harass their Christian enemies and, above all, to obtain large profits and easy gains.
For over 600 years, these constant armed confrontations produced numerous war prisoners on both sides. Islam’s captives were reduced to the state of slaves since they were war booty and submitted to the absolute dominion of their Moorish owners. Such was the condition of countless Christians in the Southern European countries in the thirteenth century.
In the lands of Visigothic Spain, both Christian and Moslem societies had become accustomed to the buying and selling of captives. In territories under Saracens rule captives were also used as medium of exchange in commercial transactions. So much so that tenth-century Andalusian merchants formed caravans to purchase slaves in Eastern Europe. In the thirteenth century, in addition to spices, slaves constituted one of the goods of the flourishing trade between Christian and Moslem ports.
Starting before the First Crusade, many hospices and hospitals were organized by the chapters of cathedrals or by the monastic orders. Within the communal organizations of towns, local charitable institutions such as almshouses were established by confraternities or guilds, or by successful individual laymen concerned with the welfare of their souls.
Broader-based and aristocratically-funded charitable institutions were more prominent and are more familiar, and the episodes of aristocratic and even royal ransom and its conditions, were the subject of chronicle and romance. The knights of the original Order of St John—the Knights Hospitaller—and the Templars in their origins are well known, and the impact of their organized charity upon the religious values of the High Middle Ages.
Sources for the origins of the Mercedarians are scant and almost nothing is known of the founder, St. Peter Nolasco. A narrative developed between the 15th and early 17th centuries that culminated in Nolasco’s canonization as a saint in 1628.
The two earliest accounts, those written by the mid-15th-century Mercedarian chroniclers, Nadal Gaver and Pedro Cijar, declare the founder, the son of a merchant, to be from the French village of Mas-Saintes-Puelles, near the town of Castelnaudary, in the modern department of Aude. A fuller account of his life by Francisco Zumel appeared in 1588 and is the basis for the biography given in the Acta sanctorum. Here Nolasco is given an aristocratic lineage, and his credentials as a Catalan figure are established with a report of the migration of the young Nolasco’s family to Barcelona. All the biographers agree that, at some point in his youth, Nolasco became concerned with the plight of Christians captured in Moorish raids and that he decided to establish a religious order to succor these unfortunates.
Nolasco began ransoming Christian captives in 1203. After fifteen years of work, he and his friends saw that the number of captives was growing day by day. His plan, was to establish a well-structured and stable redemptive religious order under the patronage of Blessed Mary.
The Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mercy (or the Order of Merced, O.Merc., Mercedarians, the Order of Captives, or the Order of Our Lady of Ransom) was one of many dozens of associations that sprang up in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries as institutions of charitable works. The work of the Mercedarians was in ransoming impoverished captive Christians (slaves) held in Muslim hands, especially along the frontier that the Crown of Aragon shared with al-Andalus (Muslim Spain).
The Order of Mercy, an early 13th century popular movement of personal piety organized at first by Nolasco, was concerned with ransoming the ordinary men who had not the means to negotiate their own ransom, the “poor of Christ.”