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ยป Temptations to Devotion: Creating the Italian altarpiece in the Renaissance and Baroque

Temptations to Devotion: Creating the Italian altarpiece in the Renaissance and Baroque


The use of images for religious devotion has always been controversial. The Mosaic law forbids the worshipping of images (one of the ten commandments) and it was the tension between this prohibition and the desire for visual manifestations of the divine in which icons, altarpieces and other material objects developed. Periods of image destruction (iconoclasm) alternated with intense image production and worship. The 16th and 17th centuries in Italy were a time of flourishing imagery, full of new ideas and designs. This exhibition displays thirty three drawings showing varied stages in such creations – from individual figure studies to finished composition.

There is a bold and creatively searching study by Correggio, exploring the compositional possibilities of the theme of Madonna and Child with Saints; its red background and wild black lines give it an intensely contemporary feeling. A group of sheets by the artists Pontormo, Salviati and Allori show these masters’ interest in the beauty of the human body, as well their heightened imagination in depicting dark topics with utter elegance and artistic imagination. Salviati’s stylish drawing of the upper body of a male figure reaching over the horizontal bar of the cross gives the impression of an almost sculpted surface, negating any allusion to the straining task of removing a dead body from a cross. Allori’s figure of the dead body of Christ is depicted as a perfect nude study, whereas the famous compositional study of the Lamentation by Pontormo is a highly complicated creation of intertwined figures. The corresponding painting is still in its original place, in the Capponi Chapel in Santa Felicita in Florence. It mesmerises not only with its precariously graceful composition, but also with its bright and vibrant colours. In the 1540s these overly sophisticated religious paintings started to be criticised and the Catholic Church was arguing for a more appropriate depiction of sacred topics. One contentious point, for example, was the demand for less nudity in religious paintings, especially after the shock of the deluge of nude bodies in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

The Council of Trent (1545-63), during which the Catholic Church firmly positioned its beliefs, also issued guidelines on the nature and importance of religious images. Altarpieces and church decorations were given a central role, generating a new surge in religious image production. Topics like the Birth of the Virgin became popular – depicting a domestic and sweet view of the holy figures. This is expressed in the joyful and light-hearted drawing of that topic by Francesco Monti in the exhibition, showing women in a rich domestic environment bathing a baby. Depictions of the Madonna and Child - beautiful young mothers with their lovable babies - were another preferred topic, as can be seen in drawings by Cigoli and Claudio Ridolfi.

The other side of the spectrum, but equally flourishing, was the depiction of violence. Grim topics showing gruesome martyrdoms were given theatricality and drama helping to evoke emotions, empathy and love in the believing viewer. The spirited drawing by Giovanni Battista Lenardi of the The martyrdom of the Quattro Coronati, or Giovanni Antonio Burrini’s two Crucifixions with the weeping figure of Mary Magdalen, are only two examples. Depictions of the fate of obscure male and female martyrs increased, exemplified in the drawing by Giovan Battista Trotti of The martyrdom of St. Euphemia. There was also a rise of images of intercessory saints who could be called upon by the believer to intervene, like Benedetto Luti’s St. Roche intervening for the plague stricken.

The images, as well as the architectural and ornamental decoration around them, were (and still are) aids which can inspire devotion. The Catholic Church understood the power of the images and that they triggered emotions which the word alone could not reach.

The drawings in this exhibition showed how artists and their patrons designed the visual language for such a purpose and it also becomes evident that they are by no means just illustrations or pedagogical instruction, but were an emotional medium, stronger than the word which could evoke piety, hope and religious belief.


A cherub flying, carrying part of a column,
Lombard, 17th Century





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