2013 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, San Diego
IAS-Sponsored Session

The Physicality of Devotion in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy I

Sheraton Marina Tower / Nautilus 4
Friday, April 5, 2013, 2:00-3:30pm

Organizer and Chair: Esperança M. Camara, University of Saint Francis


Margaret Morse, Augustana College
“Art, Body and Devotion in the Domestic Sphere”

This paper explores the material culture of domestic religion in early modern Italy and the ways in which it physically engaged the body to experience and reinforce belief. Household inventories reveal an assortment of religious goods, consisting not only of images, but also jewelry, rosary beads, holy dolls, books, prayer benches and altars, all of which necessitated direct contact and engagement with the body. Authors of domestic economies, largely directed towards women, encouraged the use of such objects to strengthen one’s spiritual experience, and advocated these materially inclined practices as a means of transmission of faith.  Additional texts addressed the importance of corporeal demeanor as a reflection of one’s inward character. In the arena of personal devotion, the actions of the body were thus central in manifesting belief, and the home, with its vast array of holy goods, offered a fitting environment for such practices for all family members.

Daniele Di Ludovico, University of Washington
“The Touch of Devotion: The Ritual Dramatization of Late Medieval Italian Wooden Crucifixes”

Wooden crucifixes with movable arms, a genre popular in late medieval Italy, played a crucial role in the celebrations of Good Friday, placing the sculpted body of Christ at the center of the ritual reenactment of the Passion. Within the context of their liturgical use, these life-size sculptures provided the faithful with the possibility of touching, quite literally, the body of the Lord. As a simulacrum of real presence, the ritually animated crucifix allowed for what may be termed the “appropriation” of the body by the faithful, pointing to a mode of visceral engagement and identification that went beyond the forms of veneration and religious decorum sanctioned by the Church. The emphatically naturalistic style of wooden crucifixes, combined with their ritual function, rendered these sculptures a unique art form. By making Christ’s humanity visible and, indeed, tangible, they offered the worshipper nothing less than direct, physical access to the divine.

Ivana Vranic, University of British Columbia
"Negotiating Devotion and Mediating Verisimilitude in Italian Terracotta Passion Groups (1450-1540)"

By mimicking human scale, gesticulation, physiognomy, movement, emotive expression and garb, groups of eight Biblical figures representing scene of Christ’s Passion have a physical presence in dozens of churches across Northern Italy. The verisimilitude of these life-size, terracotta figures induces the viewer into an embodied, sensory experience of a blurring of boundaries between nature and artifice, subject and object, and icon and idol. Pious viewers in the 15th and 16th centuries would have prayed to these groups and received indulgences—precisely the kinds of behaviour defined by Protestant reformers as idolatry. Focusing on the material and physical characteristics of Passion groups produced between 1450 and 1540 by different artists in Milan, Bologna and Modena, my paper examines the relationship between the devotional practices and the process of production of the groups, contextualizing them within the theological debates over the role of art in mediating piety.

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