Celia Hart's blog about what's going on in and around her studio.
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Monday, 6 March 2017

Madonnas & Miracles at the Fitzwilliam

The major exhibition this Spring at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is Madonnas & Miracles, The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy.

Last week I went along to a preview event, below are my thoughts along with some hints and tips which may add to your appreciation of the exhibition. But first here is the official trailer ...

You can also see more photos of some of the exhibits in a local news report, here. And the Fitzwilliam Museum as lots of useful information here. I'll add more links to press reviews, as and when I stumble across them.

This exhibition is the culmination of over 4 years cross-disciplinary research by Cambridge University's departments of Italian, History, Architecture and History or Art. It was funded by a grant from the EU, which has covered the cost of the research, the exhibition and the transportation as well as the cleaning and conservation of many of the exhibits. I've often wondered how long it takes to put on a large scale exhibition, and hearing the curators/organisers talk about the research in hundreds of libraries, archives and museums mainly in Italy but worldwide, certainly underlined the massive task that was undertaken.

So, what did I think of the exhibition? 
The title 'Madonnas & Miracles' led me to expect lots of gold painted altar pieces, but it's really about how families and women in particular, made prayer and their faith in God and the Saints, part of their day to day life and coping strategy in times of adversity. Of course there are lots of Madonnas among the exhibits, including a beautiful painting by Botticelli which is featured on the poster, but the focus is on objects which would be treasured by ordinary working folk - ceramics, beads, bowls and cutlery which would be handled while a prayer was murmered or painted plaques offering to a church as thanks for a miracle. Afterwards I thought that 'Domestic Devotions' would be a more accurate title . . . and to my surprise I've now found the research team's web site and blog is called just that! I wonder how and why they decided on the different title for the exhibition?

To transport you to Renaissance Italy, the exhibition space has been divided into rooms with dark green or blue walls, there's even a fire place and a bed. Stone effect archways frame the openings between - rugged semi-circular arches symbolise the masculine world around the piazzas and square topped doorways frame the domestic feminine world inside the home. A fact I would not have noticed if I hadn't read the Fitz's Instagram feed!

The theme of the exhibition is, I think, a bit obscure and academic - although the curators stressed how relevant the themes are to today. If you visit I'd be interested to know what you think. But many of the exhibits are intriguing, charming and have a link to ordinary people rather than the rich an famous. So it's well worth a visit (its' free to go in) and there is some wonderful imagery which you can enjoy without even reading the labels (though the labels are very clear and informative).

Here are my highlights:

- the pottery nativity table centre-piece, this is just fabulous and it's worth popping into the exhibition just to see this alone. I can imagine how this would illustrate the Christmas story told to children. And there is another ceramic nativity which incorporates inkwells ... which would be useful for Christmas cards and thank you letters!
- the Camerino wooden doll of baby Jesus, this life-like painted wooden baby is nearly 600 years old. It is from the nunnery in Camerino which was devastated by an earthquake last October, amazingly the doll survived unscathed. Apparently life-like baby dolls were popular with the nuns, who would cuddle and kiss them as part of there devotional rituals. Maybe they needed something to cuddle.

- the 'singing knives', which are engraved with music for the Benediction at the beginning of a meal and the Grace afterwards. Recordings of the prayers being sung (very beautifully) by members of St John's College choir, can be heard on the headphones next to the exhibit.

- look out for the rabbits munching their lunch in one of the large photo panels showing a scene from a painted interior. Just one of many sensitively observed scenes in the backgrounds of the pictures in the exhibition.

- I loved the jaunty horses on a ceramic plaque of St Sebastian and St Roch, who were both poplar saints for protecting a household from the plague. Notice how St Roch seems to be pointing to a rip in his tights ... actually he's drawing attention to a scar from a nasty plague boil, to give YOU hope that HE DID so YOU CAN survive. The ceramics and the illustrated woodcut pamphlets are probably my favourite things in the exhibition and the reason I'll go back for another look.

- And don't miss the wooden model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, like beautiful Renaissance lego! Imagine a family telling stories as they put the building together, perhaps tales of the pilgrimage grandfather went on years ago.

To sum up ...

Well worth a visit if you're in Cambridge. I learnt a lot. Take time to look and find the unexpected and think about how the objects on display were once part of someone's daily life.


  1. This looks fascinating - I shall definitely try and visit next time I'm in Cambridge.

  2. Definitely worth a visit I think!

    1. It's interesting and I find I'm thinking about it a lot since visiting.

  3. Thanks for your insights into this exhibition, if it is still on when we next visit It will be on our list. I also enjoyed reading your post about Edinburgh. We have train tickets and hotel booked for a visit in the not too distant future so will check out Dovecote studios.

    1. You'll enjoy the Dovecot, check the opening times for the viewing gallery and exhibition before you visit.
      The curators' talk for this exhibition definitely helped me appreciate it more.


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