Domesticity And The Divine

For Italians of the Renaissance, the home was a place of religious intimacy and contemplation

Michael Prodger

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.

If these were high-end items, the less well-off were also well catered for. Terracotta and majolica plaques stood in for paintings or marbles; plaquettes of religious scenes made from bronze started to appear from around 1440: some were used as decorative elements on prayerbooks and caskets while others were portable devotional aids; rosaries were made from rosewood, bone or Murano glass as well as crystal, coral or semi-precious stones. Indeed, the 16th century saw new materials for rosaries imported from around the world, such as osso di Spagna (Spanish bone) — beads made from a Haitian plant known by travellers as “paternoster trees” — and lacrime di Giobbe (tears of Job), the seeds of an East Asian plant.

Even dolls had a part to play. Many women owned representations of the Christ child, given to them at marriage, which they dressed and held in imitation of the way Mary cared for Christ himself — a means of mystic union. One such polychrome doll, c.1484-90, from Camerino in the Marche, is still tended by the nuns there and venerated on the Epiphany.

This is an exhibition that seeks to refute one of the claims of the Reformation — that Protestant religiosity was based in the home, and therefore had a degree of both authenticity and autonomy, while Catholics were led by the nose by their priests. It makes its case with a mixture of artefacts both ordinary and extraordinary and in doing so memorably and often touchingly illustrates the truth that for the Renaissance layman and woman piety was next to domesticity.

In Miriam Gross’s fascinating 1979 interview with David Hockney the artist takes aim at the whimsical buying policy of the Tate Gallery and its director Norman Reid.  Thirty-eight years later and the Tate is now the Tates and a very great deal has changed. Hockney bemoaned the fact that the gallery then owned only two works by him and none by Lowry, Patrick Proctor, Allen Jones, Euan Uglow and David Oxtoby. In the intervening years the Tate has been busy putting things right: it now owns a whopping 239 works by Hockney, 23 by Lowry, 11 by Proctor, 59 by Jones and three by Uglow. Oxtoby remains the exception but then he gave up exhibiting in the 1980s. 

Where Hockney’s criticisms still ring partly true is the prominence Tate Modern gives to what he calls “theoretical art”. Nevertheless, he must be heartened to know that “flat art”, even if not always representational art, now rules the roost. Tate’s most popular exhibitions have been Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (2014) with 562,622 visitors; Matisse Picasso (2002) with 467,166 visitors; and Edward Hopper (2004) with 430,000: the cuckoo in the nest is Damien Hirst (2012) with 463,087 visitors. Meanwhile, Hockney’s own current retrospective at Tate Britain is the fastest-selling in the gallery’s history. He’s having the last laugh.

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