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Religion in the Renaissance was as personal as it was public

29 April 2017

This beautiful and original exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum is the product of a research project undertaken by a team of academics with support from the European Research Council. It is therefore probably the last such initiative that we will see in Britain, and it is well worth a visit. The subtitle of the exhibition, ‘The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy’, indicates the intention to explore religious practice through objects from a domestic setting, rather than through the public art for churches, which is often artistically more significant and certainly more familiar today. This has provided a pretext for showing not just devotional books and the often quite pedestrian works of art that decorated Renaissance houses, but also some unfamiliar household objects, such as a maiolica crib and elaborate models of the Holy Sepulchre made as souvenirs for pilgrims.

<em>The Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi</em>, <em>c</em>. 1509–15, attrib. to Giovanni di Nicola di Manzoni dal Colle (active early 16th century). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi (c. 1509–15), attrib. to Giovanni di Nicola di Manzoni dal Colle (active early 16th century). Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In practice, the idea of distinguishing religious activity in the home from that in other contexts is slightly artificial, and the organisers have not followed it very faithfully. Several of the objects on display originally belonged to monks or nuns, who inevitably lived in communal institutions, and there is also a good selection of painted ex-votos, left by grateful individuals at shrines. The practice of religion during the Renaissance cannot be neatly compartmentalised for a number of reasons: members of the clergy were far more numerous than in Protestant areas, religious imagery was ubiquitous – whether in tabernacles in the streets, secular public buildings or churches – and the religious life of the laity often involved not just frequent attendance at church, but participation in processions and membership of confraternities.

Despite the wide knowledge reflected in the fascinating selection of diverse objects on display, the account given in the catalogue about the characteristics of Renaissance lay religious practice is not entirely persuasive. The emphasis on meditation and devotion sometimes seems better suited to the Church of England in the Victorian era, and is not consistent with the treatment of more physical aspects of Catholic devotion, which remained important into modern times. This is well illustrated in the exhibition by a video of pilgrims travelling to Fatima in the 1950s, some of them advancing on their knees, and another of Pius XII blessing mass-produced medallions of the Agnus Dei, which are similar to some of the objects also on display.

Agnus Dei (recto) (15th–16th century), Italy. British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A weakness of the exhibition is that the actual character of Renaissance religion is not always accurately explained. We are told, for example, that an illustrated book by Giovanni Andrea Vavassore illustrates and summarises Old Testament stories for those with little literacy. But the book is instead a series of images of New Testament stories, mainly from the infancy and Passion of Christ, arranged in chronological order, each accompanied by two Old Testament prefigurations or types, which of course are not in chronological order. It is thus very like another devotional work popular in Northern Europe, the Biblia pauperum. To put things only a little too simply: Catholics, unlike Protestants, were not encouraged to familiarise themselves with the content of the Old Testament for its own sake. It is telling too that a pair of icons decorated with New Testament stories is called Christological, even though it includes the Annunciation, the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin.

More important still is the fact that while there is plenty in the exhibition about the supposed influence of the Virgin and Saints on the daily lives of believers, well illustrated by the ex-voto panels, very little attention is paid to the attitude of the faithful about what would happen after their death, while they were in purgatory. But, in a way that was not the case for Protestants, who did not accept the doctrine of purgatory, this concern was central to their religious thinking, motivating the construction of family chapels, the endowment of masses for the dead and the religious invocations which were standard in wills. We are told that the Virgin was often invoked by women in childbirth, but not that she will be our principal advocate at the Last Judgement, which perhaps is more relevant as an explanation of her unparalleled popularity among believers.

It is also partly due to a failure to recognise the importance in the minds of the faithful about what happens after death that we are told that ‘donor portraits in altarpieces served as public records of virtue and generosity’ and in domestic images ‘they indicate donors’ desires to make visible an encounter with the divine’. There is no reason to suppose that in either public or private contexts donors were making a claim to outstanding virtue or piety. They were not claiming anything at all, but were inviting those who saw their portraits to pray for their souls, with the implication that they, in purgatory, were praying for the souls of the living. This was made very clear in inscriptions on many images, especially in the 14th century; and artists’ signatures often functioned in much the same way. A little panel by Bartolomeo Ramenghi (Bagnacavallo) showing the Virgin and Child with St Catherine, with an inscription ‘Pour forth prayers on my behalf’, is very reasonably interpreted in the catalogue as prompting believers ‘to pray for the soul of the patron’; but since the inscription itself ends with the letter B and P, it might instead be a request to pray for the soul of the painter Bartolomeo.

Despite these reservations about the underlying argument of the exhibition, the display is imaginative and well conceived. Early printed books, which are normally not especially exciting to see, are shown next to screens which allow the visitor to scroll through scans of every page; and beside a set of 16th-century knives engraved with musical notation are sets of earphones so that the music itself can be heard.

‘Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy’ is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until 4 June.

From the May 2017 issue of Apollo: preview and subscribe here.