An earthquake ravages a small town in central Italy. Catastrophic fissures rip through the buildings; desperate cries can be heard from those whose houses are collapsing; others try to attract attention by standing on rooftops and waving their hands but to no avail. Only one home stands firm while the buildings all around it crumble to the ground. Here, the Viadana family kneels in quiet prayer; husband, wife and four sons, all neatly attired and strikingly tranquil amid the chaos, appeal to their local saint, Nicholas of Tolentino.
This compelling image is preserved among the remarkable collection of ex votos at Tolentino, in the Marche region of central Italy: nearly 400 painted wooden boards, dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries, usually about a foot long and orientated horizontally, purchased or commissioned by those who had been granted a miracle thanks to the intervention of St Nicholas.
Ex voto means ‘in fulfilment of a vow’ and the idea was that when one prayed to the Virgin Mary or to the saints for a miracle one would promise to leave an offering in return for a favour granted. This is why, in Italy and in other Catholic countries, shrines are sometimes bursting with objects and pictures like this one, each recording the miraculous activities of God’s busiest saints.
I have been drawn to thinking about ex votos as part of my project on ‘Objects of Devotion: The Material Culture of Italian Renaissance Piety, 1400–1600’ funded by a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship. My research reacts against the common misconception of the Renaissance as a secular age, characterised by luxury, individualism, worldliness and scepticism.
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