The English College in Rome, now universally known as the Venerabile (‘venerable’ because of its age and because of the number of martyrs that went from there to their death in England), dates from 1579. The altarpiece for the main altar, which is the subject of these art notes, was painted by Durante Alberti in 1580 and is generally called the Martyrs picture. It is a ‘Mercy Seat Trinity’, a representation of the Trinity that became increasingly popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and is a good example of how fine art can enhance catechesis on the liturgy.
The Mercy Seat was originally commanded of Moses by God (Exodus 25:17-22) and placed above the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark and the Mercy Seat were carried by the Israelites throughout their forty-year sojourn in the desert. When Israel settled in the Promised Land, and Solomon’s Temple was built in Jerusalem, the Ark and the Mercy Seat were placed in the Holy of Holies in the Temple.