at the national gallery in london there hangs a painting entitled ‘cimabue’s celebrated madonna’ (1855), painted by lord frederic leighton. it represents a procession through the streets of florence, where people are following cimabue’s painting of the madonna. cimabue was a florentine painter, made famous in the late medieval-early renaissance period.
but back to leighton: this painting reminds us of the importance of the madonna not only in art history, but also in the actual streets of florence. i strongly doubt that you could see anything resembling this wave of people walking around a float carrying a painting of the madonna. (at least, i hope you wouldn’t.) (would be kinda scary), in this age of secularism and all.) but you can, however, see relics of the madonna all throughout the streets of florence. seriously: everywhere you go. can’t swing a cat without bumping into an image of the virgin mary.
whilst christianity and catholicism were strong throughout italy, florence itself had a particularly strong bond with the madonna: indeed, the virgin mary was the city’s patron saint. and at many street corners, you can see, elevated on the wall, images of the virgin mary. let me show you:
here’s one, by night
here’s another, by day
yet another, by day, next to my studio
another, by day, above a vintage store
and i love this modern one.
these are tabernacles – niches holding images or tiny sculptures, often in exterior walls of buildings. street shrines, if you will. they are scattered across florence, and represent the madonna with a child (sometimes they have john the baptist, the city’s other patron saint.) but why, must we ask, are there so many of them? the answer, which is threefold, links politics, disease, economics and religion:
1. building these tabernacles all across the city was a way of combatting heresy in the 13th century
2. it was also a response to the black death, which spread widely in the 14th century, terrorising the city and its inhabitants. these tabernacles would, allegedly, protect the people from the plague.
3. whilst great families built cathedrals and commissioned great artists to paint them, middle-class families commissioned tabernacles. as such, these images of the virgin mary were as much reflections of mysticism as they were symbols of socio-economic status.
there are more quirky details in the tabernacles: why, for instance, are lamps (of varying sizes) positioned near/over/inside so many of them? these lamps, lit, were the presence of christ. and whereas normal street lamps might get damaged by ruffians throwing stones at them, no one dared throw stones on lamps which protected such heavy religious symbols as tabernacles of the madonna.
Trexler, Richard C. “Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image.” Studies in the Renaissance 19 (1972): 7–41.
Meiss, Millard. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death: The Arts, Religion and Society in the Mid-fourteenth Century. Vol. 395. Princeton University Press, 1978.
Borsook, Eve. “Cults and Imagery at Sant’Ambrogio in Florence.” Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz (1981): 147–202.
Henderson, John. Piety and Charity in Late Medieval Florence. University of Chicago Press, 1997. Cassidy, Brendan. “The Assumption of the Virgin on the Tabernacle of Orsanmichele.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 51 (1988): 174–180.
Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. “The Madonna and Child, a Host of Saints, and Domestic Devotion in Renaissance Florence.” Neher & Shepherd (2000): 147–64.
Emmons, Paul, Jane Lomholt, and John Hendrix. The Cultural Role of Architecture: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives. Routledge, 2012.