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Madonnas and Miracles in new Cambridge exhibition

‘Madonnas and Miracles’ is the title of a major new exhibition which opens at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge today, and reveals the central place of religion in the Italian Renaissance home. Keith Morris reports.

The free exhibition will show how religious beliefs and practices were embedded in every aspect of domestic life.

You can peer through the keyhole of the Italian Renaissance home and discover a hidden world of religious devotion with over 150 exhibits gathered from major UK museums and direct from Italian shrines.

The culmination of a four-year European-funded project, ‘Madonnas and Miracles’ presents the fruits of a ground-breaking interdisciplinary investigation carried out at the University of Cambridge which has uncovered hundreds of sources that tell a new story about the role of the divine in everyday life.

The exhibition presents a domestic sphere that was supercharged with spiritual significance. Many different kinds of artefact—paintings and crucifixes, crockery and cutlery, jewellery, rosaries, statuettes, prayer books and cheap prints—are brought together to show how they worked collectively to shape the domestic religious sphere.

Some of the most powerful items on display are familiar items of daily life turned to divine purposes. An ivory comb from the mid-fifteenth century features a tiny Annunciation scene. A two-handled cup is decorated with the instruments of Christ’s Passion. Conversely, some religious objects served worldly purposes. A rock crystal rosary, created for a wealthy patron, reveals delicate scenes in gilded glass within each of its thirteen beads; it would have functioned simultaneously as a potent religious tool and a breath-taking piece of jewellery.

Displaying 50 objects from the museum’s own collection, as well as over 100 important loan works from Europe, the United States and Israel, ‘Madonnas and Miracles’ explores a series of interlinked themes: family life, the physical experience of prayer, the role of the saints, miracles, pilgrimage and religious reform.
Exhibition co-curator, Deborah Howard, said: “The exhibition demonstrates that domestic religion at the time was well attuned to the needs of ordinary lay-folk, as they experienced the crises and anxieties of everyday life.”

The point is driven home by one of the highlights of the show: a selection of ex-voto painted wooden images drawn from shrines across Italy and never before displayed in the UK. The roughly painted boards were originally created to give thanks for miracles were produced in the period – deliverance from earthquakes, falls from high windows, house fires and disease.

“The images of worshippers at moments of extreme physical peril provide moving testimony to the Renaissance fascination with the miraculous, in its intersection with everyday domestic life,” said Deborah.

The exhibition will show how the Madonna functioned as a role-model for motherhood and parenting. This theme is intimately depicted in a favourite painting from the Fitzwilliam’s collection, Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St John, which portrays Mary teaching Jesus to read.

A 15th century polychrome wooden doll of the Christ Child from Camerino, which survived a recent earthquake which hit the area and monastery of Santa Chiara, has left Italy for the first time to be displayed in the exhibition. Many women in Renaissance Italy possessed similar dolls, which were dressed, undressed, handled and kissed, mimicking the Virgin’s maternal bond with Christ.

Alongside masterpieces by renowned artists such as Filippo Lippi and Annibale Carracci, ‘Madonnas and Miracles’ will feature domestic objects from the Museum’s reserve collection rarely seen by the public.

The multi-sensory nature of devotion will be highlighted by the use of different media. While they admire rosaries made of rosewood and bone, visitors will be able to listen to the voice of an elderly Italian woman repeating her Ave Marias and Paternosters and Cambridge resident and Italian Catholic Dr Anna Gannon talk about her personal devotions and the rosary.

One particularly unusual item is a set of knives that bear the musical notation for a four-part grace - brought to life by a recording by members of the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge.

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue, edited by curators Maya Corry, Deborah Howard and Mary Laven.
The exhibition runs until June 4 every day except Mondays.


Pictured top, a rock crystal rosary and, above, Pinturicchio’s Virgin and Child with St John. Pictures copyright of the museum.



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