Most of our encounters with the religious art of Renaissance Italy are made in either churches or galleries. All too easily we ignore the broader spiritual context in which a Botticelli Madonna, a Luca della Robbia Annunciation or a Donatello John the Baptist was originally created. Artefacts as superb as these spring from a world in which devotion flourished amid private spaces, where worship was empowered through a variety of portable objects whose intrinsic beauty enhanced even the smallest gesture of faith. Rosaries, pilgrim badges and reliquaries could remind the devout of the Blessed Virgin or a favourite saint. So too could the images painted on a majolica dish or carved on an ivory comb.
Religion, as the Fitzwilliam Museum’s outstanding Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy exhibition now reminds us, had a life for the average household quite as vivid as anything summoned up on painted panels and frescoed walls to awe the faithful at an altar, or act as a stimulus to cloistered contemplation. What English Protestant reformers scornfully dismissed as “massing trash” takes on a fresh significance in an exhibition which adds invaluable nuances to our concept of active religion within Renaissance households.
A section called “The Pious Body”, for example, develops the notion of a deliberately ambiguous boundary between sincere conviction and modish vanity – via a scatter of rings, a jewelled crucifix and a silver-gilt medallion, with a liturgical text on one side and an engraving on the reverse, of St Veronica holding her miraculously imprinted veil. In “Practices of Prayer” we are shown images of the Virgin with saints deftly worked from mother-of-pearl and glazed earthenware, designed to protect a venturesome traveller or an entire family.
Pilgrimage evolved its specialised representational world. An arresting exhibit here is a salmon-coloured silk ribbon from Loreto measuring the dimensions of a wonder-working Madonna and Child. Painted ex-votos, these depictions of street accidents, sickbed scenes and attempted murders, are moving in their crude simplicity alongside the consummate skill of Leandro Bassano’s Woman at her Devotions or a Fra Angelico drawing of the dead Christ.
The show does not confine itself to Catholic orthodoxy, reminding us that Renaissance Italy’s heretics, too, maintained a domestic dialogue with God. It also features items from pious Jewish households, such as an ornate Sabbath spice box. There is a musical dimension besides. The score and text of a mealtime grace, as marked on a set of table knives, has been recorded for the exhibition, along with a variety of hymns and motets.
Madonnas and Miracles, its perceptive contextualising deepened for us by an excellent catalogue, is the more remarkable for its own context within the Fitzwilliam Museum. Stepping back into the permanent collection from these dedicated rooms, we are compelled to look with fresh eyes at paintings we thought we knew so well.
The whole show has its own dimension of the miraculous.
Jonathan Keates is chairman of the Venice in Peril Fund. Madonnas and Miracles runs until June 4 at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge