Prior to the start of this year’s Renaissance Society of America Annual Meeting in New York, five members of the team engaged in two days of intensive Met-trawling. We had come up with a wish-list of objects and – thanks to the generosity of the Metropolitan Museum staff – we were able to go behind the scenes at the Museum in order to handle ceramics, decorative objects inscribed with devotional texts, a wonderful array of Madonnas made of terracotta, painted wood, and ivory, and a single prayer bead. As we had hoped, seeing and touching the objects made a real difference. That solitary bead, whose image we had all ogled on a website for several months, was larger and heavier than any of us had anticipated; its edges were sharper and it was more obviously metallic in the hand than on the screen. A maiolica plate celebrating the beauty of a young woman named Cassandra shone with a fabulous lustre, and – when viewed close up – the pendant hanging from a chain around the lovely neck turned out to be a piece of coral, naturally formed in the shape of a cross. Colours, textures, depths and meanings came to life before us on the table.
This was excellent preparation for three panels at RSA on ‘religious materiality’, organized by Andrew Morrall of the Bard Graduate Center, Suzanna Ivanic and myself (both from Cambridge). The sessions were inspired by Caroline Bynum’s brilliant study of Christian Materiality in the middle ages and aimed to push her inquiry forward into the early modern period and to establish some connections and comparisons between Catholics and other religious groups. The first session comprised two papers on Italian ex votos: the first (presented by me) a consideration of the rise of painted votive tablets in the late fifteenth century, and their relationship to older traditions of wax anatomical offerings; the second (by Alessandra Chessa) a case-study of the extraordinary collection of 5000 papier-mâché ex votos that remain at a shrine outside Siena. Discussion of the material properties of these different media was much enhanced by the presence of Fredrika Jacobs, author of the recent book, Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy.
Our second panel considered the changing religious significance of gemstones during the early modern period. Rachel King spoke about the transformed role of amber (a popular medium for rosary beads) in North European Protestant contexts. The medical properties of this stone secured its value as a commodity treasured by Martin Luther and Francis Bacon, among others. More surprisingly, amber was strung in beads and chaplets and worn by women in childbirth, as a Protestant alternative to the girdles and charms associated with the old religion. Suzanna Ivanic, who offered a fascinating analysis of three wonders found in the Kunstkammer of Rudolph II, rejected the assumption that these were transformed from cult objects to art objects, and argued for their ongoing spiritual significance. Kate Holohan introduced us to the large green stone that was listed in a posthumous inventory of Philip II: a remarkable object, the size of a fist, with a face carved upon it, that had once been used as an idol in the New World, and which then was deployed to cure gout and kidney stones in the Old World. The ease with which the Most Christian King was able to assimilate this pagan fetish into his materia medica challenges our assumptions about belief and belonging in the early modern world.
Finally, three distinguished historians of the early modern world invited us to consider the ritual functions of devotional matter. According to John-Paul Ghobrial, the religious identity of Eastern Christians was founded upon practices rather than beliefs; his exploration of their material world focused on gesture, clothing, and liturgical convention rather than devotional objects. Alex Bamji shared his emphasis on ritual. Her paper on the materiality of death in early modern Venice emphasized the importance of dressing the body. Venetians requested burial in the clothes of a religious order, while the doges were commemorated in the eighteenth century with wax busts, adorned with wigs and hats. Rachel Greenblatt concluded our three panels with a lively analysis of the public procession organized by the Jewish community of Prague in 1716 to celebrate the birth of an heir to the Habsburg throne. Her research shows how the Jews of Prague deployed ritual in order to cement their allegiance to the Habsburgs while simultaneously displaying their religious customs and identity. However, her reminder that Jewish materials are not necessarily religious materials poses a challenge to those of us who study Christian materiality. Take that maiolica plate decorated with a beautiful woman who wears a coral cross. It was probably once displayed on the credenza (sideboard) of a Catholic home in central Italy. But does the presence of a coral pendant make the plate a devotional object? Surely not, if by ‘devotional object’ we mean a prop to prayer or meditation, actively deployed in practices of piety. But let’s ask a slightly different question. Does the plate contribute to our understanding of what it meant to be devout in Renaissance Italy? Yes, I think it does. Devotion goes beyond prayer. It is often silent and felt rather than actively expressed. Religious materiality is a means of gaining access to that unspoken, unexpressed state of devotion.