Exhibition Review

Piety at home in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge

IN RECENT YEARS we have been blessed with exhibitions that have moved beyond the hierarchies of technique and in which the ‘fine arts’ are placed within the context of the ‘decorative arts’, or, from a more enlightened point of view, in which the histories of art and of material culture are seen to be one and the same thing. Although it is more than a decade since the Victoria and Albert Museum’s groundbreaking At Home in Renaissance Italy,1 its impact continues to be felt. Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (to 4th June), focuses on one aspect of life in the home, which the Victoria and Albert’s encyclopaedic approach could only consider briefly. By looking to the domestic sphere, in some respects it complements the 2011 exhibition at the National Gallery, London, Devotion by Design,2 which, in addition to exploring the development of the altarpiece in Renaissance Italy, also attempted to provide a context for the understanding of religious art within the sacred space. Here, we have a far richer and fuller exploration of the ways in which religion entered the home, became an essential part of visual and material culture and was part of everyday life. Over 160 objects in many media and techniques are arranged thematically in sections devoted to family life, Christ, the Madonna and saints, practices of prayer, pilgrimages and objects of devotion. The display runs parallel to a book,3 which, although exploring similar themes, often places the objects in different contexts, thus creating an informative counterpoint. 

The exhibition effortlessly blurs the boundaries between what is ‘art’ and what is functional – although everything here ‘functions’ as an object of devotion. In the introductory section a terracotta sculpture from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection has no function if not to decorate, amuse and inform: The annunciation to the shepherds and the adoration of the magi (cat. pl.26). Its charming characterisation of the biblical narrative suggests that it may have been aimed at children, but this is by no means certain. Given what is, at first glance, an almost naïve piece of craftsmanship, the sophistication of the narrative is fascinating. Despite the title, three scenes are depicted rather than two. On one side we see the Adoration of the shepherds, in which even the sheep, once roused from their lethargy, seem excited, one clambering over another in its eagerness to approach the infant saviour (Fig.52). Their movement implies the movement of the viewer around the object, or perhaps it might have been turned, to see what is apparently the ‘front’. Here two scenes interlock: the Nativity, with the Christ Child lying on the ground in front of the ox and ass, and the Adoration of the magi, in which the new-born child sits on his mother’s lap, thus allowing for two images of Christ in close proximity. 

As well as providing the subject-matter for independent ‘art’ objects, religious imagery features on what could be the most mundane of items. A comb, displayed in the final section of the exhibition, but illustrated early in the catalogue (pl.27) is given value in two ways. Fashioned from ivory, with its inherent material worth, it is carved on one side with the Annunciation (Fig.55), and on the other, the Nativity. These scenes from the life of the Virgin suggest that the owner was probably female, and would have been reminded of her ultimate role model while going about her daily ablutions. A collection of knives is not decorated pictorially, but inscribed with texts and musical notation (pl.25; Fig.53). Grouped appropriately, they allow ensemble singing in four-part harmony, which has been recorded, allowing the visitor an added aural experience. 

The devotion is not solely Christian, and a small but telling group of objects from Jewish households makes clear that, despite its dominance, Christianity did not have a monopoly on visual culture. Intriguingly, even though the curators aim to underplay the importance of classical sources in Renaissance art, they creep through. A sixteenth- century Hannukah lamp from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (pl.43) is described as featuring ‘Renaissance-style cherubs’. On closer examination, two sport quivers, while a third holds what appears to be a bow, thus identifying them as cupids – distancing them from either of the ‘living’ faiths. Likewise, a cofanetto with David and Goliath from the V. & A. (c.1510; pl.21) also includes depictions of a legend from Roman history and knights in battle. In these two objects the sacred and profane live side by side, but they are exceptions. On the whole, the exhibits are profoundly religious and create a coherent picture of the devotional life in homes at many levels of society. 

The section dedicated to Christ, the Virgin and saints illustrates the various ways in which the holy figures were seen to interact with everyday life. As exemplified by the ivory comb, the Virgin Mary was the most important role model for women, and especially for mothers. In the Fitzwilliam’s Virgin and Child from the studio of Botticelli (pl.51), not only does the Virgin hold her son with delicacy and tenderness, but, multitasking, looks down at a book as a sign of her regular devotions. As well as inspiring onlookers to maternal affection, the painting would also encourage them to pray. The book could be one of the many exhibited, whether the Pseudo-Bonaventure’s Meditationes vitae Christi, here in an edition with annotations by two successive owners, both of them nuns (pl.57), or Alberto da Castello’s Rosario della gloriosa Vergine Maria (pl.93). This is accompanied by rosaries of every possible material value, from wood through bone and bronze to rock crystal. One fragmentary example (pl.124) is made up of beads similar to those in a rosary worn by the subject of Bartolomeo Veneto’s Portrait of a young lady from the National Gallery (pl.125). The selection is exemplary throughout: everything functions in its own right, but also as an illustration of the objects around it. 

It is often the most down-to-earth exhibits that are the most moving. Two images of the Virgin breastfeeding, one a maiolica statuette (pl.49; Fig.54), another a woodcut (c.1450; pl.117) have a more immediate impact as a result of their relative simplicity, and both could have been owned by those of the most modest means. The latter, hand-coloured, was discovered during the demolition of a house in Bassano in 1884, attached on or above one of the doors. It deserves more attention. It is one of two objects from the British Museum for which the title has been transcribed without question. Although called The Virgin enthroned suckling the infant Christ, surrounded by angels, there is only one angel, Gabriel, in the top left-hand corner (the Annunciate Virgin appears in the top right). Whether or not she is ‘enthroned’ is not clear, but two saints, Catherine and Lucy, are easily identifiable (as acknowledged in the catalogue), while the male saints are probably Anthony Abbot and John the Baptist. For another, far more precious object (monetarily, at least), the subject has simply been misidentified. An enamelled gold ring with St Anthony (pl.60) shows a saint wearing the black and white habit of the Dominican order. It is probably Dominic himself, who, like the Franciscan Anthony of Padua, carries a lily as a sign of his purity. Given that the lilies are set with diamonds, and a ruby forms a book held by the saint, it would also make sense to distance this luxury object from an order traditionally devoted to the virtue of poverty. 

But these are minor quibbles, and should not undermine the reason for which the objects themselves were included, to show the genuine devotion of people at all levels of society. The interaction between the objects is enhanced by their setting within the ‘narrative’ of the accompanying book. The section Practices of Prayer does much to explain how the objects in the exhibition functioned, while the final section, Reform and Renewal, describes how, following the Counter-Reformation, the Church tried to control the hydra-headed nature of domestic devotion. Particularly valuable is Maya Corry’s exposition of the importance of the sense of sight, ‘Religious Images in the Eye of the Beholder’. Not only is the viewer inspired and informed, but, as the image was believed to imprint itself upon the eye, effectively partakes of what is seen physically. Discussing a pax showing a sensuous, muscular Christ (British Museum; pl.105), we are told that plaquettes were ‘reverently touched, stroked and kissed’ – but in the domestic sphere, who would monitor the appropriate reverence? This problem is hinted at, but barely answered, in an entry on Annibale Caracci’s Penitent Magdalene ( pl.158), a nd could b e r elated to the Counter-Reformation strictures that ‘lasciviousness’ should be avoided. The sexuality of these images asks to be addressed – although understandably it is not within the scope of this exhibition. Indeed, one of the strengths of the project as a whole is that, despite its rich seams of scholarship, this is a field that is open to further development. The multiplicity of images and texts, and the ways in which they are used to decorate and embellish objects not only of great value but also of the most basic materials help lay to rest the prevalent cynicism about the function of religious imagery. Although there are objects clearly designed to project power and wealth, these are by no means in the majority. Discussing the remarkable array of exhibited ex votos, Mary Laven describes them as ‘visual records of the fears and anxieties that beset Renaissance families as well as testimony to the faith that ordinary people put in supernatural interventions’. This could equally serve as a tribute to this profoundly important exhibition. 

1 M. Ajmar-Wollheim and F. Dennis, eds.: exh. cat. At Home in Renaissance Italy, London (Victoria and Albert Museum), 2006; it was reviewed by Fabrizio Nevola in this Magazine, 149 (2007), pp.56–58. 

2 S. Nethersole: exh. cat. Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500, London (National Gallery) 2011; it was reviewed by Peter Humfrey in this Magazine, 153 (2011), pp.684–85.

 3 Book: Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy. Edited by Maya Corry, Deborah Howard and Mary Laven. 198 pp. incl. 210 col. pls. (Philip Wilson Publishers, London, 2017), £25. ISBN 978–1–7813–0053–4.