IN COMMON, probably, with many other churches, my parish recycles candle-stubs. Or, rather, our Youth Group runs an Advent stall of hand-made gifts which features candles made from leftover wax, if we have found time to make them.
But the sacristy cupboard has the much larger stumps of any number of Paschal candles that I do not have the heart to throw out, and not all of which I can use in demonstrating baptism to primary-school children. I had not ever thought to mould them with the Lamb and Flag, the Agnus Dei.
In Rome, these wafer-thick roundels, made from the valuable wax of previous years’ paschal candles, were first baptised in holy water mixed with chrism and oil of balsam, and then distributed on the first Sunday after Easter in the first year of a new pontificate and then at seven-yearly intervals.
In a Pathé newsreel clip of 1959, shown at the end of this exhibition, we see Pope John XXIII, attended by two cardinals, baptising the wax rounds and ladling them out of the font on a slotted spoon. An engraving by Bartolomeo Faleti shows Pius V (1566-72) consecrating the wax “lambs” in 1567, and depicts the whole liturgy.
Although intended to be burned, these token reminders of the Paschal lamb (and of the “solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands”) were often treasured as keepsakes and were thought potent when worn in a brooch or pendant to safeguard childbirth. A particularly fine ornament is exhibited here (British Museum), on the reverse of which is an image of the Veronica.
The pendant is characteristic of many of the more domestic and intimate items selected by Maya Corry, Deborah Howard, and Mark Laven to demonstrate the central place of religion in Catholic households throughout the Renaissance and to allay the commonly held observation that it was only among Protestants that household piety was celebrated.
From the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Berlin comes a late-15th-century ivory comb, little more than five-and-a-half inches long, on the spine of which is the scene of the annunciation. Mary kneels at a prie-dieu set up at the foot of her four-poster bed as an example to the owner of the luxury toilette item.
Equally high-status household objects on display include a full set of notation knives with ebony and ivory handles, each with an etched steel blade on which is the name of a voice part and a stave of music for Grace and Benediction in simple polyphony.
The inscription on one side of the blade reads “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat”, which was sung before the meal was taken. On the other side, the inscription gives thanks after the meal: “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.”
They were designed to be held in the left hand when being sung from, to allow the right-handed to make the sign of the cross; united voices at mealtimes would reach to the stars. “In fracta virtus ad sidera tendit” is inscribed at the foot of the bass knife.
Staged to evoke entering a Renaissance house, the exhibition shows us how the pattern of birth and death shaped so much of daily life, and how the Madonna served as a role-model for motherhood and for parenting.
The first painting on show is that of a kneeling Madonna adoring the infant Christ, who, doll-like, lies on the pleated folds of her crimson dress, seemingly without crushing it.
This picture, from the Fitzwilliam’s own collection, is as much loved today as it was when the Master of the Castello Nativity first painted it in Florence in the 1460s. One of several identical versions is today housed in the Civic Museum of Livorno, a city once memorably slighted by Henry James in his Italian Hours: “it may claim the distinction, unique in Italy, of being the city of no pictures.” Not so.
Beneath the sumptuous painting is a polychrome wooden figure of the infant Christ Child. It is a much revered treasure from the walled university city of Camerino, in the Marche, that has registered more than 70 earthquakes. In the October 2016 earthquake, the house of the Poor Clares who look after it was demolished, but the infant figure was found unscathed in the rubble.
The regular recurrence of earth tremors and the resulting destruction is brought home by the 16th-century woodcut on a prayer card that depicts the Holy Cross. Mary and John stand either side of a bare cross, on which hangs the crown of thorns and the veil of Veronica in place of the corpus of Christ. The instruments of the Passion are ranged on either side of the cross and are assembled on the cross beam. Almost unnoticed down below are two unwary soldiers beside the tomb.
This cheap print would typically have been pasted up somewhere at home with its protective prayer against sudden death and earthquake: “SS Croce sopra la morte inprovvisa ed il terremotto.”
Another prayer card invites the intercession of St Paul, who is unusually seen on horseback, as he is about to trample a snake and a dragon. It offers protection from rabid dogs, consuming poison, and being bitten by a poisonous animal. Pilgrims, whether they journeyed in the footsteps of St Paul at least as far as Malta or ventured further into the Ottoman-held East, are likely to have brought back souvenirs of their piety.
One section of the exhibition centres on the Holy House at Loreto. In 1646 and 1647, Dr John Bargrave undertook a trip to Italy. He later wrote up a sort of guidebook based on his journey, Il Mercurio Italico (1648). From that visit, and subsequent return visits to Rome at five-yearly intervals until the Restoration, he brought back curiosities. A ribbon-like tape measure of printed silk, the exact length of the image of the Virgin and Child kept in the shrine at Loreto, is among his collection still held at Canterbury Cathedral.
A beautiful portrait of an elderly widow saying the rosary, cat’s-cradle-like, painted by Leandro Bassano (1577-1622) in the 1590s brings a sudden hush to the gallery space, as it links both the themes of life and of the proximity of death.
It is one of two portraits from the Veneto; the other is of a 67-year-old man (a Senator or jurist, to judge from his fur-trimmed cloak) standing in prayer before a crucifix, which is dated 1562 (Treviso, Musei Civici).
Above the bereaved woman, who is seen at her kneeling desk, a picture hangs on the wall. Professor Erin J. Campbell in her ground-breaking volume Old Women and Art in the Early Modern Italian Domestic Interior (2015), points out that this scene is that of the birth of the Virgin. It therefore emphasises lineage and continuity besides offering prayer for a safe birth.
Older women were often identified with St Anne as being both devout and attentive to the Spirit. In the Bassano portrait, the wide-eyed widow is front-lit as she gazes timelessly into her past. Perhaps she also represents that other Anna who was daily in the Temple awaiting the birth of the Messiah.
From the folds of her widow’s weeds falls a fine cambric handkerchief that might have been a marriage gift. Its shape is echoed by the birthing towel held by the wet nurse in the painting above her head (see Wikimedia at WGA1472.jpg).
Among the wide range of materials on show is a leather reliquary box, made to look like a book that, once opened, held a relic of the noble patron saints of Brescia, St Faustino and St Giovita. Their tomb was reopened on 7 February 1623 and a local artist, Francesco Chinello, used pen and ink and watercolour to sketch their skeletal forms, lying side by side, just as they had been found. This was bought for the V&A at a cost of £15 in 1899.
There are some fine ceramics on show, including Moorish work from Spain and a delicately painted tray (c.1531) on which the Holy Family with St Elisabeth watch as a midwife settles the Christ Child into his cot (Fitzwilliam). I was sorry not to see some of the decorative floor tiles that characterised many households in the day; Giancarla Periti, in her recent volume In the Courts of Religious Ladies, has made much of the individually painted maiolica floor tiles of Renaissance nunneries in the 1470s in Parma.
Less highly finished, but speaking to a simple and affecting devotion in less well-to-do households, is a wall display of “ex-votos”, naïve paintings often on the back of any piece of wood that came to hand. Painted in thank-offering for a perceived miracle, such as recovery from an accident on land or sea, or after illness, safe childbirth, or surviving an armed attack, many show the suppliant seeking the Virgin’s intercession.
When the Viadana family home survived an earthquake that demolished the neighbours’ houses, they, too, offered thanks, employing a humble artisan to show them safely inside their home, while their neighbours’ properties are ruinous.
This ex-voto comes from the church of San Nicola in Tolentino, and the family supplicate their local saint. Others come from the church of the Madonna dei Miracoli at Loniga and the sanctuary of the Madonna dell’Arco (Naples).
They were taken down on a Friday from their churches and put up in the Fitzwilliam on the Monday. Much like the infant child of Camerino, they will, I imagine, be much missed until they are returned. We are privileged to get to see them between now and Pentecost.
In the mean time, once I find a suitable mould, I am putting my Youth Group on notice for Good Shepherd Sunday, whether or not I can find a spare cardinal or two to assist in consecrating those Agnus Dei roundels.
”Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy” is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, until 4 June. Phone 01223 332900. www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk