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Madonnas & Miracles at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Pinturicchio, Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist Copyright Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

In the early morning of 24 August 2016 the Nunnery of Santa Camilla Battista da Varano suffered a catastrophe. A series of earthquakes measuring 6.2 on the seismic scale devastated the Umbrian countryside in which the simple convent was based. The quakes ravaged much of central Italy; 250 individuals died and thousands more were displaced. For Santa Camilla, the disaster meant the destruction of their place of worship; homes reduced to rubble. They found one small solace, however: the Camerino doll had survived undamaged. The doll is one of the order’s prized heirlooms, a wooden sculpture of the baby Christ dating back to the 15th century. Saint Camilla, the convent’s founder, supposedly witnessed divine visions of Madonna whilst beholding the model, and the residents of the nearby town of Camerino gather annually at the feast of Epiphany to pay homage to the relic. It’s survival, to the nunnery, was nothing short of a miracle.

Less than a year on and the Camerino doll now sits in the Fitzwilliam Museum. The revered sculpture features as part of the new Madonnas & Miracles exhibition which opened on 7 March. The long-awaited display comes as part of a ground-breaking research project pioneered by both Cambridge University and the Fitzwilliam, supported by the European Research Council, which aims to explore the role of religious worship within the Renaissance home. The exhibition collects both classical paintings and common ornaments from 15th and 16th century Italy in a diverse display that blends history and art – and Santa Camilla’s relic provides one of the key exhibits.

The Camerino doll following the earthquake of 2016.
The Camerino doll in the Santa Camilla nunnery following the earthquakes of August, 2016.
When we think of the Renaissance we often think of grand artworks, the untouchable masterpieces by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian – the list goes on. Never has there been a period quite so artistically blessed. There was, however, a much more everyday side to Renaissance culture that is less commonly shown to the public. Early modern innovations in paint, craftsmanship and most famously the printing press prompted an explosion in popular appreciation and ownership of art. For almost the first time, the average worker could purchase a simple depiction of a divine scene, and Madonnas & Miracles features a whole wall of ex-votos, crude paintings laid on wood that 15th century devotees would buy and present at chapels in the hope of gaining heavenly favour.
The Camerino doll was far from a cheap trinket: its intensely lifelike form belies serious craftsmanship. It does, however, draw a line between the grand and the domestic. Dolls like this were common in affluent Renaissance households: women would wash and dress the manikins as if they were real children. Entering the Fitzwilliam’s Mellon gallery, mocked out in the regal green of a Venetian palazzo, visitors are immediately greeted by the Christ model. The sculpture resides beneath the Master of Castello Nativity’s Virgin adoring the Child, a golden, glowing oil painting depicting Mary praying above her infant son. The likeness between the artwork’s two-dimensional babe and Santa Camilla’s wooden sculpture is uncanny: the pair could easily have been devised by the same artist. Their functions as depictions of the sacred would also have been similar. Just as the Renaissance noblewomen, or the townspeople of Camerino, would honour their artefacts to find holy favour, contemporary onlookers to Virgin adoring the Child would hope to find connection to the divine in gazing upon the radiant canvas. The majority of the Renaissance’s grand religious paintings, in fact, were designed with the aim of inspiring religious reverence.

Comb with The Annunciation, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin
Comb with The Annunciation, Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin
Wandering through Madonnas & Miracles you find gestures to the heavenly in everything from the grandiose to the humdrum. The eyes of Pinturicchio’s saviour in The Virgin and Child stare inquisitively back at the onlooker; Fra Angelico’s The Dead Christ bellows pious grief. Lots of homely objects carry reminders of the spiritual. A series of plates and bowls contain biblical figures in their inlay. A fine ivory comb features a carefully chiselled image of The Annunciation on its stem. Maybe most impressive of all, a set of table knives have a string of musical notations inscribed into the blade so the users could sing Benedictan chants in harmony as they dined – try that over your fishfingers and chips this evening. This was Renaissance Italy’s obsession: everything had to indicate to God, especially in the home. As the exhibition’s accompanying notes describe, everyone from “the humblest artisans (to) the most exalted artists were engaged in producing artefacts that promoted domestic piety.”
But where the religious entered the home, so the home slipped into the religious. Like all exchanges of ideas this was a two-way street, and it’s remarkable when pointed out just how many of the Renaissance’s grand paintings feature the household as a backdrop. Take Vittorio Carpaccio’s The Dream of Ursala. The painting measures at least four-foot tall and four-foot wide. An angel takes up a few inches to the bottom right, the sleeping Ursala to the bottom left. The rest of the canvas is packed by the delicately arranged interior of a Renaissance bedroom, fitted with classical statues, a reading desk, green and blue wall-paint and intricately carved upholstery. The wealthy Loredan family commissioned the painting to honour their patronised estate the Scuola of St Ursala, and the work likely adorned the walls of their property. Carpaccio makes no attempt to imagine the 5th century setting of Ursala’s life. This is a 15th century home – maybe the Loredans’ own – with all its trimmings.

Ex-voto of an earthquake
Tolentino earthquake ex-voto.
Many of the wooden ex-votos also feature the home: pious worshippers are visited in their residence by divine visions. In one depiction a terrified family kneel in desperation as an earthquake tears holes in their neighbours’ property. A haloed figure emerges from the clouds of the top left to hear their calls – their home is saved. Religious faith and the material possessions that enabled it had very real consequences for contemporaries. A painting or artefact could be the difference between a miracle and a disaster. And so we return to the nunnery of Santa Camilla. The Camerino doll will be sent back to Italy – quadruple bubble-wrapped one suspects – to be readied for the next feast of Epiphany. Despite the events of last August, the beliefs that surround the relic still remain, their relevance unshaken from the Renaissance to today.
Madonnas & Miracles runs until 4 June at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. For more information, see the Fitzwilliam’s website.