2021 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, Virtual
IAS-Sponsored Session

Visual Networks of Healing in Renaissance Italy

RSA virtual meeting room 30; Wednesday, April 21, 2021; 2:00–3:30PM EDT

Organizers and Chairs: Sandra Cardarelli, University of Aberdeen, UK, and Valentina Živković, Institute for Balkan Studies, SASA, Belgrade

This session explores faith and medicine as two of the traditional methods of healing represented in the visual arts in the Renaissance, and how its local and global dimensions influenced Italian art. Visual imagery will be examined to establish the ways in which narratives of healing practices and healing saints were formed and became an integral part of cultural traditions. Healing will be discussed in both its physical and metaphysical dimensions to highlight the ways in which religious and cultural values related to healing translated into shared visual idioms that were sought after, acquired, adapted and effectively utilized to foster new religious cults and/ or healing practices. As imagery was actively used to forge devotional, social and political networks between different locales, main centres and liminal communities, we will examine how the practice and representation of healing differed and influenced dominant cultural centres and the periphery.

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Theresa Flanigan, The College of Saint Rose
“Art, Compassion, and Healing at the Tomb of St. Francis in Assisi”

This paper addresses the affective and curative potential of late medieval Franciscan art. In particular, it examines images of Christian suffering and Franciscan healing miracles painted by Giotto’s workshop in circa 1305-11 in the lower north transept of San Francesco at Assisi. These paintings were part of a renovation of the lower church undertaken to provide pilgrims with greater access to the entombed body of St. Francis in the adjacent crossing. The frescoes will be interpreted relative to a recently discovered early fourteenth-century medical theory of compassion. It will be argued that, according to this medical theory, the compassion-provoking images in the lower north transept of San Francesco in Assisi had the potential to psychologically transform the pilgrim and prepare them to encounter the tomb of St. Francis by making them receptive to the miraculous healing power of St. Francis’s stigmatized body.

Louise Marshall, University of Sydney
“Topographies of Salvation: The City Model in Renaissance Plague Images”

This paper investigates the role of the city view in works of art commissioned by Renaissance worshippers to invoke heavenly assistance against bubonic plague. Existing topographic conventions in the visual arts—donors offering buildings to God and their titulars, and patron saints holding miniaturised models of towns under their protection—were creatively transformed to serve the needs of individuals and communities faced with the constant threat of plague. Prophylactic purpose endowed the inscription of place with particular urgency, providing a focal point of civic solidarity in times of crisis, forging ties of dependence and obligation between earth and heaven, and ensuring that the solicited celestial defense was directed towards the correct target. Above all, the need for reassurance against recurrent epidemics propelled a more demonstrative and performative representation of place, whereby the static town model was activated, narrativised and personalised as protagonist in a drama of salvation from the plague.

Alessandra Foscati, University of Lisbon
“Healing Saints and Disease: Images and Texts”

Saints were frequently attributed with special therapeutic powers as healers, sometimes explained by historians as elements of folklore. By contrast, the interesting path leading to a specialization – with the disease sometimes even assuming the name of the saint – is an intrinsic part of the history of cults and their diffusion through the network of shrines. In this respect, special therapeutic powers can be derived from the different thaumaturgical practices and the various depictions of sanctity and the disease itself. As the latter is often interpreted by historiographers using different epistemological criteria from those adopted in the past, the characteristics of the thaumaturgical cult in question can sometimes be misunderstood. The aim of this contribution is to demonstrate the complex nature of the relationship between healing saints and diseases by analysing a variety of images and textual sources – not only hagiographies – that refer to the Renaissance period.

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