Did Raphael—“The Divine One,” as this great painter was often described—document a UFO crash during the Renaissance?
It’s a story that resurfaces from time to time on some UFO websites. It all starts with a beautiful painting, The Madonna of Foligno, created in 1511 by Raphael on a commission from Sigismondo de’ Conti, chamberlain to Pope Julius II and prefect of Saint Peters’ Factory.
It was originally placed on the high altar of the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in Rome, where Sigismondo was buried, but today it can be seen in the special room devoted to Raphael at the Pinacoteca Vaticana of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City—a room universally considered by visitors to be the summit of the whole Pinacoteca.
There are three main masterpieces on exhibit there: the Transfiguration, the Oddi Altarpiece and The Madonna of Foligno. The subject of the latter is a “holy conversation” in which some sacred figures appear to be in conversation between themselves and seem to also address the audience. We can see at the center the Virgin Mary sitting on a cloud, holding baby Jesus. On the right we have Sigismondo himself, kneeling on the ground and wearing a red cape, along with Saint Jerome standing behind him. On the left, mirroring them, is St. Francis of Assisi kneeling and St. John the Baptist standing.
In the middle of the ground is a mysterious angel holding a plaque that has no inscriptions on it. Is he trying to tell us something?
But the real mystery is behind this little crowd. Near the head of the angel, it is possible to see the house of Sigismondo Conti and, above it, a mysterious reddish object falling from the sky. Is this proof of a UFO contact or, as some say, of an unprecedented flying saucer crash?
Nothing of the sort.
In the past, various paintings from Medieval and Renaissance masters have been the subject of similar questions. The Madonna with Child and San Giovannino by Sebastiano Mainardi at Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, for example, shows a strange oval figure suspended in the sky: Is it a UFO? The Annunciation by Carlo Crivelli at the National Gallery in London has an object suspended in the sky that seems to direct a strange “ray of light” to the Madonna: The chronicle of an alien abduction?
Of course not, but to explain these and other apparent mysteries it is necessary to remember that ancient painters were asked to draw their inspiration from very precise biblical references and were expected to insert symbolic meanings that were anything but random.
The object in Mainardi’s painting, for example, is a “luminous cloud,” an element described in the apocryphal Gospels that is present in many “adorations” of the period. Looking closely at Crivelli’s painting, on the other hand, we can see that the object in the sky is a vortex of angels in the clouds, another frequent representation of God in Medieval and Renaissance sacred works of art.
As for the Madonna of Foligno, the painting was commissioned by Sigismondo to Rapahel as an ex-voto to the Virgin, a thank you present, for having saved his house in Foligno from burning when it was hit by lightning. This is the meaning of the orange “object” flying toward the house. Sure, it could have been a fireball, consumed before touching the ground, or maybe even a meteorite, although no chronicles exist of this latter event. But certainly, it was no UFO crash, of which there are no traces.
And why does the angel carry a sign with nothing written on it? The reason is simple: Sigismondo died before seeing the painting and did not have the time to dictate to Raphael the text, the explanatory “thank you note” to the Madonna.
The usual error of so-called “ancient astronauts” theories is that of reinterpreting with the eyes of twenty-first–century Europeans the product of other cultures. Furthermore, as this case proves, the fact of having no knowledge whatsoever of the history of art appears to be a mandatory requirement for mystery mongers everywhere.