Objects of Devotion: The Material Culture of Italian Renaissance Piety, 1400–1600

By Mary Laven

An earthquake ravages a small town in central Italy. Catastrophic fissures rip through the buildings; desperate cries can be heard from those whose houses are collapsing; others try to attract attention by standing on rooftops and waving their hands but to no avail. Only one home stands firm while the buildings all around it crumble to the ground. Here, the Viadana family kneels in quiet prayer; husband, wife and four sons, all neatly attired and strikingly tranquil amid the chaos, appeal to their local saint, Nicholas of Tolentino.

This compelling image is preserved among the remarkable collection of ex votos at Tolentino, in the Marche region of central Italy: nearly 400 painted wooden boards, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, usually about a foot long and orientated horizontally, purchased or commissioned by those who had been granted a miracle thanks to the intervention of St Nicholas.


Ex voto means ‘in fulfilment of a vow’ and the idea was that when one prayed to the Virgin Mary or to the saints for a miracle one would promise to leave an offering in return for a favour granted. This is why, in Italy and in other Catholic countries, shrines are sometimes bursting with objects and pictures like this one, each recording the miraculous activities of God’s busiest saints.

I have been drawn to thinking about ex votos as part of my project on ‘Objects of Devotion: The Material Culture of Italian Renaissance Piety, 1400–1600’ funded by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship. My research reacts against the common misconception of the Renaissance as a secular age, characterised by luxury, individualism, worldliness and scepticism.

By focusing instead on the widespread ‘consumption’ of religious objects, I will cast light on the vibrant piety that shaped Renaissance lives. Through rosaries, crucifixes, Christ-dolls, statuettes, religious jewellery, devotional books and paintings, pilgrim souvenirs, and even instruments of self-mortification (the hair shirts or flails with which people in this period sometimes tested their faith), I aim to show that Renaissance shoppers filled their baskets with items that testified to a profound piety. But I shall also be asking why Catholic culture was defined by such a clutter of objects.


The man who avoided Marys

Although focused on objects, my research will often be pursued via texts. Inventories and account books are the best means of informing us about patterns of expenditure in the Renaissance; trials carried out by the Inquisition can tell us about the uses and abuses of religious artefacts; meanwhile, the printed genre of the ‘miracle book’ provides essential context for understanding ex votos. During the first century or so of print, books that related the miracles accomplished by a particular saint were bestsellers. And when you come to read them, you can see why. Their dramatic recounting of some potentially horrific incident followed by a pious conclusion makes for a highly satisfying read.

Among my favourite stories is that of a lascivious and promiscuous man who nevertheless drew the line at having sex with any woman called Mary (an act which he considered profoundly blasphemous). Seeing an opportunity, the devil instigated a tryst between our hero and a woman who turned out to be named Maria. Fortunately, before the dreadful deed was committed, the man discovered the truth, and such was his remorse that he was saved from mortal sin by immediate death. That he then went straight to heaven, thanks to the intervention of the Virgin Mary, was a miracle indeed, even if it’s hard from a modern perspective to see that as a happy ending.

Other stories chart the aversion of disasters involving children – narratives with which anxious parents today can easily identify. We learn of the miraculous rescue of a girl who falls from the roof of her home where she has been sunning herself, and of the baby who incurs ‘monstrous’ injuries to the face and blindness in one eye after her nurse allows her to tumble into the hearth. One particularly graphic tale from a Florentine miracle book is of a boy who nearly suffocates when he becomes submerged in excrement after hiding from his mother in the latrine. He is pulled out unharmed, and miraculously fragrant, by the Virgin Mary herself.


Familiar, yet unfamiliar

Miracle books also shed light on the many different kinds of ex votos that were commissioned: not just painted representations of the miracle granted, but a whole range of three-dimensional objects, including wax items that have rarely survived. Most typical are the anatomical models: a pair of wax eyes or ears to record the recovery of a person’s sight or hearing, or a wax foot paid for by the mother whose little boy had been healed of a bad toe. The rich commissioned the same objects in silver. More humble folk might invest in candles identical in length to children that had been healed. Others hung up their crutches as a memento of their cure. Similar practices go back to antiquity and continue today at the great Catholic healing shrines such as Lourdes in France and Loreto in Italy.

As a historian therefore I’m left with a quandary. To what extent is the instinct to appeal for help from a saint or a divinity, or to make a public expression of gratitude for a calamity averted, a human constant?

To return to the ex voto commissioned by the Viadana family: at one level, the scene is all too familiar. Today, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, terrorist attacks and bombings continue to cause cities to crumble. And yet the appearance in the painting of a tonsured monk, buoyed along in a fluffy white cloud in the sky, is strikingly alien. It is this balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the universal and the particular, which will exercise me most during my research project.


In my attempt to establish what was distinctive about Renaissance piety, I shall be pursuing religion out of the church and into the neighbourhood and the home. It is already clear to me that the Italian household – far from being a site of worldly individualism – was saturated with religious practices and beliefs during this period. New attention to domestic devotions and the rich culture of objects that supported them will challenge our assumptions about the Renaissance mindset. This was a world in which the Virgin and saints were regular visitors, and in which materialism could be good for the soul.

Source: University of Cambridge


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!