Beautiful Brides and Model Mothers

The Devotional and Talismanic Functions of Early Modern Marian Reliefs


This essay will consider the role played by sculpted reliefs of the Madonna and Child in the devotional, marital, and procreative rituals of fifteenth-century Italy.1 Statuettes and small paintings of the Virgin and Child for private domestic display became increasingly common throughout Europe from the thirteenth century onward,2 but it was only in early-fifteenth-century Italy that sculptor-designers such as Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia, and Jacopo della Quercia began to develop a new genre to illustrate this subject, namely, the half-length Marian relief. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars predominantly concerned with questions of attribution, dating, and authenticity have used stylistic criteria to categorize these works primarily in terms of artists’ names and dates of production.3 Until the end of the fifteenth century, however, most home inventories did not bother to specify the date or authorship of Marian reliefs, which suggests that such questions were of little concern to contemporary patrons.4 How fifteenth-century beholders actually engaged and interpreted these objects can be best discovered by combining a close visual analysis of the reliefs with an examination of late medieval and early modern attitudes toward lay and especially female spirituality, the place of works of art in the domestic sphere, and the importance of magical and devotional practices in rituals associated with marriage and procreation. Although the latter subject is the primary focus of this volume, the present essay also will consider other issues related to the production and reception of Marian reliefs in order to provide a fuller context for  the role these objects played in addressing early modern concerns about birth and marriage in particular.


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  1. 4.
    One of the earliest documents to record attributions for Marian reliefs is the 1492 Medici Palace inventory in which two such objects are given to Donatello. Even this text, however, continues to list most reliefs without any attribution. M. Spallanzani and G. Gaeta Bertelà, ed., Libro d’inventario dei beni di Lorenzo il Magnifico ( Florence: Associazione “Amici del Bargello,” 1992 ), 57.Google Scholar
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© Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación 2002

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