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Private piety: A majolica panel of the Virgin and Child, c.1600-1700, after Benedetto da Maiano (© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

During the Renaissance, the true place of holiness was not the cathedral, church or wayside shrine but the home. Public, priest-led worship may have given devotion official sanction but the real business of prayer went on behind closed doors. The Church and its instructors, from Savonarola to Carlo Borromeo, stressed the importance of meditation in the home — and innumerable books, pictures and objects were produced to help laypeople to focus. This, the materiel of worship, is the subject of Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy, at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, until June 4.

What this gathering of paintings and applied arts — rosaries and crucifixes, missals and stoups, bowls and coffers — presents is personal rather than institutional piety, a view of religious intimacy quite separate from the more usual fare of art history with its focus on artists and patrons, churches and chapels. Paintings of the Annunciation and the birth or dormition of the Virgin are plentiful and, when added to inventories, give some idea of the organisation of the Renaissance home. They make it clear that it was the bedchamber that was the usual space for devotion. In middle-class houses, the camera would commonly contain an image of the Virgin and Child (when not in use, often covered by a curtain or shutters), a candlestick, crucifix and priedieu (which could itself contain prayer books), making it a defined zone for contemplation.

If religion in the camera was focused on the times of rising and retiring, then church thinkers stressed the importance of piety at all times of day. For example, Carlo Borromeo, cardinal and saint, specified that “when trading at the market, or working, try to occupy your mind with something spiritual, like that which Our Lord Christ or other saints said or did, or by reading the Psalms, or by singing spiritual things”. There was to be no religious downtime and various items were kept in the home constantly to remind the family of God.

The exhibition includes one such quotidian article, a majolica inkstand, c.1510, attributed to Giovanni di Nicola di Manzoni dal Colle, showing the nativity. The receptacles for ink sit at either side of the central trio of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child with a donkey and ox behind: it is part utilitarian object and part independent sculpture. Such commemorative inkstands were sometimes bought for the bride prior to her wedding, and subsequently husband and wife would be reminded of their faith every time they dipped a pen.

At meal times the injunction to bless the table before eating and give thanks afterwards could be heightened by using bowls decorated with religious imagery, such as St Francis at prayer or the Arma Christi (the objects used in the crucifixion). Cutlery need not be simply utilitarian either: a set of four 16th-century knives has blades engraved with the words and music of a Benediction on one side and a Grace on the other. The users would have sung as they cut and remembered the Last Supper and the eucharist.

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