The way in which we look at the Renaissance (French for “rebirth”) is still very much influenced by the interpretation of Modern Age historians, who saw it as a time of cultural and artistic resurgence after the darkness of the Middle Ages. Sharing the same enthusiasm for mankind as their contemporary Humanistic philosophers, many poets and artists of the time looked back at the Greeks and Romans drawing new inspiration to set man –as opposed to God – as the main focus of interest again.
But if this outlook on the Renaissance was true, how did the Christian faith survive this secular time, which also saw the millennial authority of the Catholic tradition being challenged by the Reformation?
For many years, our friend Irene Galandra Cooper and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge have been digging into tribunal archives, exploring private collections and monasteries and looking for an answer to this question.
This is how they found out that common people homes and families – far from the influent circles of intellectuals – were the living shrine of faith in the Renaissance.
The findings of the project, which given its originality was awarded a prestigious 3 million euros European Research Council grant, were shown to the public through the exhibition “Madonnas & Miracles – The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy”, hosted by Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge till the 4th of June.
In a lovely Spring Saturday morning, Irene guided us in a journey through time and the rooms of a Renaissance home (reproduced at the Fitzwilliam to host the exhibition) to meet the common people who lived in it. For them faith was a very much carnal experience, in which none of the senses was excluded.
THE TOUCH. Many women of the time were presented with wooden dolls at the moment of marriage or of entry into a convent. This tradition was prompted by the visions of Renaissance saints and mystics, in which they saw the Virgin Mary adoring and attending to her Holy Baby. Every day these baby dolls were dressed, hugged and kissed, inspiring the carnal devotion for the baby Jesus in the mothers and nuns to be. An exclusive piece of the exhibition, we could admire the doll that inspired the visions of the mystic Camilla Battista da Varano and that soon became itself an object of veneration, while being preserved for 500 years in the Camerino monastery. We were then confronted with the first miracle of the exhibition: in a recent earthquake that shook the convent and severely damaged it to the point of making it unsafe to use, all the sisters were unharmed and the baby Christ doll was surprisingly found perfectly intact amongst the rubble, as Sister Laura Cristiana told the BBC in a recent interview (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p050db60, starting from minute 26).
THE SIGHT. The religious images, and in particular images of the Virgin Mary, were abundant in every home, catching the eye not only from paintings on the walls and statues on the furniture, but also from the frame of mirrors, the decorations of combs and other daily use items. Since not everybody could afford expensive top end sculptures and paintings, some of the pieces of the exhibition are not as pretty as those that we are used to see in museums, and the cheaper material used is witnessed by the damage that time has caused to them. Nonetheless, each one of them was just as beautiful and precious to the eyes of family devotion, and the fact that they are still there 600 years later witnesses how carefully they were preserved and passed from one generation to the other.
In an age with high infant mortality and still very much influenced by superstition, many of the images also aimed at educating people. Hence the many pictures in which the child Jesus is wearing a coral necklace, considered a protective amulet of the time, like to say: “I am the only amulet you need, I am protecting you!”
THE HEARING. Religious music was very much present in the Renaissance homes. A collection of four knives inscribed with musical notation of a Benediction on one side and of a Grace on the other, which probably guided the family prayer before the meals, was made sing again exclusively for the exhibition through the voices of the *** Chorus in Cambridge.
THE TASTE. Being the Last Supper at the very centre of the Christian faith, it is not surprising that the dinner table in the Renaissance home was full of religious images. Saints and representations from passes of the Holy Scriptures were abundant on plates, cutlery and vases, inspiring pious thoughts in the family gathering for a meal.
THE SMELL. Since the late Middle Ages, great importance was given to the prayer of the Rosary, in which people would reflect on the mysteries of the Christian faith and present the 50 Hail Mary and the 5 Our Father prayers as verbal roses to compose a crown for the Virgin Mary. Hence the Italian name “corona” to identify the chain of beads that form the Rosary. To help the devout not to distract, one of the magnificent pieces of the exhibition is a Rosary in which each bead has a miniature portraying one of the mysteries. An essence of roses was also put on the Rosaries, so that while engaging with daily activities hours after the prayer people would be prompted to recall the mysteries and the Virgin Mary by the scent coming from their hands.
This scent would have accompanied the faithful also outside of its home, together with pieces of jewellery shown in the collection. Many of them would have religious inscriptions, like the monogram of the name of Jesus Christ, in contact with the skin and hidden from the view. A precious pendant, which might have just appeared as a symbol of wealth, was instead a reminder of its faith for the person who was wearing it.
In the last room of the exhibition, Irene showed us a collection of ex-votos of the time, coming from different Regions of Italy. In these small images, the supernatural intervention of Mary or of a particular Saint is shown while it miraculously saves the life of the faithful, who then presented the image to a particular sanctuary. If being saved by a shipwreck could be just seen as good luck by our contemporaries, for the Renaissance man this was instead the palpable effect of the divine protection, through the intercession of the Madonna and the Saints.
Thanks to our passionate guide Irene and the work of her team, the exhibition “Madonnas & Miracles” disclosed to us the true heart of the Renaissance man. Breaking the barrier of time with its testimony, we had the chance to meet an authentically religious people that perceived God, the Holy Vergin and the Sainst as very much concrete persons in their life. Engaging with each of the five senses, their presence permeated family life and accompanied the faithful in his daily business also outside the house, actively intervening to protect its body as much as its soul from evil.
Coming back to our chaotic houses and busy life in a secularistic world, the Holy Home of the Renaissance seems a very distant reality. But the Renaissance man we just met is challenging us: “What prevents you from living this way now?”