Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 1, 2015
Megan Holmes The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013. 396 pp.; 80 color ills.; 178 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300176605)

By 1600, there were over fifty miraculous images in Florence: weeping Madonnas, bleeding Christs, paintings and sculptures—often veiled and only occasionally exposed to direct view, surrounded by heaps of votive offerings left by the faithful in gratitude for miracles experienced. Their proliferation during the previous three hundred years in churches, oratories, and street tabernacles throughout the city occurred alongside the founding of many more cults across Florence’s hinterland, or contado. Indeed, as the commune extended its territorial domain, so the new subject-cities spawned miraculous images—a process of sacralization strongly supported by the Florentine regime.

With painstaking scholarship, Megan Holmes’s The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence reconstructs the chronology of this devotional phenomenon. She identifies four main phases of development. The period from 1292 to 1398 witnessed the origins of the earliest cults, mostly centered on images of the Madonna and Child. The start of the second phase, which lasted from 1399 to 1493, coincided with the rise of the Bianchi—a popular religious movement, renowned for its barefoot processions in which crucifixes were carried. Given the high profile of the Bianchi in Tuscany, it is no surprise that this period should have resulted in new cults featuring crucifixes, some of which had started life as processional crosses. From the late fifteenth century, the pendulum swung back in favor of Marian cults. A crop of miraculous images of the Virgin arose during a period of political instability between 1494 and 1530, and in particular following the execution of Girolamo Savonarola in 1498. The return of the Medici to power in Florence in 1531 in their new role as hereditary rulers of the Florentine dukedom prompted a final phase of growth in the number of miraculous images venerated in the city that lasted until the end of the sixteenth century. During this period, the proliferation of cults sponsored by the Medici fused with the Counter Reformation impulse to promote both Marian and Christocentric devotions, albeit under more controlled conditions. Many of the new image cults were located within nunneries.

While Holmes’s work in tracing the complex histories of image cults in Florence and the contado is in itself to be commended, her engagement with chronology goes beyond establishing dates and trends. In fact, the book is an ambitious attempt to unsettle and reconfigure understandings of the Renaissance—as both concept and period—by viewing a key facet of cultural productivity in Florence through the lens of devotion. This is, needless to say, an anti-Burckhardtian Renaissance that banishes the idea of the era as harbinger of modernity and secularization and eschews the art-historical canon. While, in older accounts, miracle-working images tended to be dismissed as “archaic in style, imitative in form, poor in quality, compromised by repainting, and consequently of little art historical interest,” Holmes here boldly argues that “image cults were among the most vital and dynamic sites of cultural activity in Renaissance Italy” (5–6).

True enough, the explosion of image cults coincided neatly with the period generally associated with the Tuscan Renaissance: from the second half of the thirteenth century, the age of Dante and Giotto, to the 1500s—the century of Michelangelo and Machiavelli, Vasari and Galileo. But Holmes is talking about more than coincidence. The novelty which we attribute to the Florentine greats was, she proposes, also evident at the shrines of miraculous images: “The material and visual culture of Renaissance Florentine image cults did not simply involve the recrudescence of earlier artistic and religious genres. . . . New categories of visual representation and innovative variations on traditional forms emerged” (10). Among these innovations, she includes the emergence of life-size votive portrait statues, small painted wooden panels representing miracles, elaborate all’antica tabernacles enshrining miraculous images, and illustrated printed miracle books.

In emphasizing the artistic innovation that was generated in the Florentine shrines, Holmes challenges the assumption that miracle-working images were Byzantine in style and—regardless of their actual date—aspired to look archaic. Yes, there were instances of Byzantine icons that manifested miraculous powers (the eleventh-century Nikopeia Madonna in San Marco, Venice, or the Holy Face in San Bartolomeo degli Armeni in Genoa, a contact relic which supposedly bore the impression of Christ’s face, set in a fourteenth-century frame, for example), but, according to Holmes, Byzantine and Byzantinizing icons represented “only a small percentage of Italian Renaissance miraculous images and an even smaller fraction of those found in the Florentine environs” (163). The fact that a brand new image could be just as effective as one deemed to be ancient or at least archaic in style is well illustrated by the case of Bernardo Daddi’s the Madonna of Orsanmichele, commissioned in 1347 to replace an earlier miraculous image that had been destroyed in a fire. Daddi’s Madonna, which has previously been characterized by art historians as self-consciously backward in style, recurs at key points in Holmes’s argument. She rejects the view of the painting as archaizing, and emphasizes instead the “monumentality, material richness . . . refined technique, and visual intimacy” of the work (149). Daddi was an accomplished artist who deployed his skill in order to create a “sacred object that eloquently articulated the beauty, grace, queenliness, and nurturing attitude of the Virgin” (235). Holmes’s argument, developed in relation to the miraculous images of Renaissance Florence, places her in the camp opposed to the view of Hans Belting that there is a rupture between the traditional cult images of the medieval period and true art, marked by individual invention, in the Renaissance.

Holmes is as attentive to the geography of devotion as she is to matters of chronology and periodization, and one of the great achievements of her book is to cast light on the spatial dimensions of image cults. She commences her chapter “The Florentine Contado and Subject Territories” with a quotation from Michael Camille, who contrasts the “safe, symbolic spaces of hearth, village or city” with the “dangerous territories outside, of forest, desert and marsh” (105). Building on Camille’s observation, Holmes sees the proliferation of image cults in the new subject territories of Florence as a means of “stabilizing these less secure spaces . . . and harnessing the supernatural powers considered to be particularly active betwixt and between” (105). Most of these miracle-working images were established devotional objects in conventional settings that were subsequently activated as potent sites of sacred intercession. Sometimes, they were situated in more remote locations and were associated with springs, mountains, groves, and rocks. Cults outside Florence were often responsive to the demands of agriculture. Famously, the Madonna of Impruneta (late thirteenth century) was called upon during times of drought or excessive rainfall, and ceremonially carried into Florence. Meanwhile, within the metropolis, miraculous images were closely associated with city thresholds (its gates and bridges) and with morally contested spaces (where prostitutes plied their trade, and where men gathered to gamble and drink). The ongoing attraction of Florence’s earliest miracle-working image, the Madonna of Orsanmichele, may in part be attributed to its location in the Florentine grain market, at the heart of the city between the cathedral and the center of government. As Holmes points out, in the context of Florence’s agrarian economy, the well-being of the polis depended on good harvests, and wheat was the staple crop; the “miraculous Madonna of Orsanmichele thus initially presided over one of the vital yet vulnerable and highly regulated commercial activities in the city” (69).

Holmes’s book is at its most original and important in her analysis of the setting of miraculous images, often veiled and positioned within elaborate frames, tabernacle chapels, and sanctuary architecture, and encrusted with votive offerings. Holmes refers to this as the “enshrinement” of the image. Traditionally, historians of art have neglected to ponder the significance of such additions and accretions, as if they somehow detracted from the authenticity of the image itself. But in a shift of interest which might be seen as running in parallel to the work currently taken by literary scholars on “paratexts” (marginalia, tables of contents, bindings, the physical form of the text, etc.), historians of the visual arts are now perceiving the importance of the physical apparatus that framed and conditioned the viewer’s perception of the image. Perhaps the most intriguing element of enshrinement was the way in which the physical framework of the image was designed to render it invisible on all but special occasions.

Rigorous, scholarly, and theoretically engaged, The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence casts much new light on an understudied feature of the period. Along with recent work by, among others, Jane Garnett and Gervase Rosser, Fredrika Jacobs, Paul Davies, and Robert Maniura, it forces a reconsideration of the complex relationship between art and devotion and encourages us to think carefully about what we mean by “Renaissance.” For those who have worked on the culture of the miraculous in other parts of Italy and Europe, this in-depth Florentine study will prompt many comparisons. Scholars who are more at home with archives than with images may crave further research into the reception of the images Holmes investigates. And yet it is one of the virtues of this book that it does not present itself as the last word on the subject, but rather as a valuable spur to further research.

Mary Laven
Reader in Early Modern History, Jesus College, Cambridge