Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: Miracle-working Images in Italy

Jane Garnett considers objects of domestic devotion from Italy that frame personal engagement in cults of miraculous images. Their presence within a complex network is powerful in connecting the everyday with the transcendental, the individual with the community.

MLA citation format:
Garnett, Jane.
"The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: 
Miracle-working Images in Italy."
Web blog post. Material Religions. 7 October 2015. [date of access]

A commemorative engraving of a painting of the Virgin and Child is lovingly laid on a stretched cloth, embroidered with roses. The elaborate gold frame of the reproduced image is itself doubly framed by the exquisitely-worked flowers and the polished wood oval containing the whole. This was a wedding present in the early 1920s for the grandmother of the present owner, who keeps it in a place of honour in her home in the little Ligurian town of Sori on the north-west coast of Italy. 

Figure 1: Framed engraving of the Madonna of the Graces, Sori, Italy. Photo by author.

A similarly cheap and tiny print of the Virgin and Child from Livorno, just down the coast into Tuscany, is given an elaborate frame which, with simple materials, evokes the rich adornments of a shrine in a church. Cut-out pieces of coloured cardboard simulate a curtain, gold columns and marbled supports. The deep blue background – as intense as lapis lazuli - is encrusted with sea-shells, and two little angels, possibly taken from decorations for a Christmas crib, float in homage either side of the image. 

Figure 2: Framed immaginetta of the Madonna of the Black Mountain, Livorno, Italy. Photo by author.

Both these objects form part of a complex Catholic world in which the miraculous is animated within and animates the everyday. The cult images to which they relate are believed to be supernatural, and their shrines are the focus of devotional attention, through services, visits for private prayer, offerings – of candles, jewels, coloured ribbons, or money. Yet the image is never contained within a church. Indeed its potency there is reciprocally reinforced by its vitality outside – in the immediate neighbourhood, in the wider community, in people’s homes - and in the imagination of individuals. Ever-present - on street corners, in bars, on the fa├žade of an apartment block, on the mantelpiece or above the bed, in people’s wallets – in the past on the prows of ships, still on gateways and overlooking harbours – the image gives life to memory and evokes the invisible. Each iteration of the image has the same potential for animating the supernatural. 

Historically, the ex voto gifts presented in gratitude for graces granted in response to prayer have often taken the form of pictures which vividly depict the miracle – recovery from illness, survival of a workplace or road accident, rescue from a storm at sea. In such pictures the Virgin - the supernatural agent - characteristically appears in a corner, on a cloud or in a burst of light, as referent both to the particular cult image which is the object of devotion, and to her constant presence in the minds of those members of her community going about their daily business. In some, a reproduction of the image – on the wall of a sickroom or held up in the eye of the storm – makes a direct visual connection between the devotional focus of the devotee and the intercessory intervention of the Madonna. 

Figure 3: Ex voto, Shrine of the Madonna of the Black Mountain, Livorno, Italy. Photo by author.

Such devotional cultures present delicate challenges for both the historian of religion and the art historian. The very language that we habitually use of images – of figuration, representation, expression – threatens to be reductive in this context. The language of the ‘visual’ is inadequate to capture the multivalent ways in which the image is experienced. Sounds, smells, music, atmosphere, movement, reflections of candlelight in a puddle beneath a street shrine, the sun glinting on the gold decorations of a processional float – all can trigger connections, stimulate memory and mark out the zones within which the miraculous can be felt. Context, therefore, is vital, yet context does not suffice to explain the experience of the supernatural. The belief in the miraculous powers of an image and the behaviour that results from such belief throw into heightened relief the usual difficulties of historical interpretation. One of the principal challenges is that of grasping a concept of the mysterious that for believers readily coexists with the familiar and the everyday: that which resists explanation sits alongside, and within, that which demands no explanation. Miraculous images – vernacular and endlessly reproduced, whilst relating magically to a transcendent presence – move in and out of historical time, always evoking something beyond themselves, acquiring a particular focus at moments of devotional intensity, at others constituting an element of the more transitory movement of everyday life. 

The two domestic images speak to the active animating role of the individual who forms part of a historically-embedded devotional community. For centuries, members of Catholic communities throughout north-west Italy, as in wider Catholic culture, have grown up with stories and experiences of miraculous interventions. The calendar has been marked out by ritual moments which re-enact, re-purpose and re-invent traditions. The week running up to the feast day of the particular Madonna is the culmination of a year of preparation - the dramatisation of a year-round devotional culture – often celebrated by spectacular displays of fireworks and processions to which all contribute. Such cults are social. But they are no less social for being intensely personal. The relationship between the individual and the particular Virgin of a particular place is intimate and intently practised. The act of customising cheap mass-produced reproductions – whether as a gift at a significant moment in someone’s life, or to create a private devotional object – is both a form of meditation and an expression of honour. The decorations give texture and status to something which is intrinsically deeply significant whilst being at the same time flimsy and ephemeral. The process embodies the paradox which lies at the heart of image cults, and which has always rendered them unstable and hence challenging to religious authorities. The material, however fragile, is freighted with transcendent power, and there are an infinite number of distinctive ways in which that power can be felt and understood through the interactive agency of the devotee and the Madonna. The ordinary and the extraordinary become one. 

Jane Garnett and her co-author, Gervase Rosser, were joint winners of the 2014 ACE/Mercers' Book Award, a biennial prize awarded to a book which 'makes an outstanding contribution to the dialogue between religious faith and the visual arts', for their book Spectacular Miracles: Transforming Images in Italy from the Renaissance to the Present (London: Reaktion Books, 2013).


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