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Beautiful Brides and Model Mothers

The Devotional and Talismanic Functions of Early Modern Marian Reliefs
Chapter

Abstract

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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Notes

  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
  2. 5.
    Michael P. Carroll, The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 5 and 75–89.Google Scholar
  3. 11.
    This miracle is depicted in a fresco at San Francesco in Assisi. See Alastair Smart, The Assisi Problem and the Art of Giotto (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), pl. 63.Google Scholar
  4. 19.
    Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion ( New York: Zone Books, 1991 ), 194.Google Scholar
  5. 27.
    Ringbom, “Devotional Images,” 162–64; Jeffrey H. Hamburger, “The Use of Images in the Pastoral Care of Nuns: The Case of Heinrich Suso and the Dominicans,” Art Bulletin 71 (1989): 20–46; and Idem, “The Visual and the Visionary,” 161–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 29.
    David Freedberg, The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989 ), 4. See also KlapischZuber, Women, Family, and Ritual, 115.Google Scholar
  7. 53.
    Julius Kirschner and Anthony Molho, “The Dowry Fund and the Marriage Market in Early Quattrocento Florence,” Journal of Medieval History 50 (1978): 403–38; Klapisch-Zuber, Women, Family, and Ritual, 213–46; and Herlihy, Medieval Households, 98–100.Google Scholar
  8. 54.
    Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. I Cunnison (London: Cohen & West, 1954 ), 76.Google Scholar
  9. 64.
    Her letters, written between 1447 and 1470, are collected in Alessandra Macinghi Strozzi, Lettere di una gentildonna f orentina del secolo XV ai frgliuoli esuli, ed. C. Guasti (Florence: G. C. Sansoni Editore, 1877 ). See also Lauro Martines, “A way of looking at women in Renaissance Florence,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 4 (1974): 19–28.Google Scholar
  10. 76.
    Albertus Magnus, Man and the Beasts: ‘de animalibus’ (Books 22–26), trans. J. J. Scanlan ( Binghampton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1987 ), 63.Google Scholar
  11. 85.
    On the latter phenomenon, see Martin Kemp, “The ‘Super-artist’ as Genius: The Sixteenth-Century View,” in Genius: The History of an Idea, ed. P. Murray ( Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989 ), 32–53.Google Scholar
  12. 88.
    Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the Seventeenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), xxiii. This quotation, attributed to Michelangelo by Francisco da Hollanda, may be apocryphal.Google Scholar

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© Anne L. McClanan and Karen Rosoff Encarnación 2002

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