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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Virgin and Child

Advice for the use of religious images in childrearing

Advice for the use of religious images in childrearing

Giovanni Dominici (c. 1356–1419) was inspired by Saint Catherine of Siena to become a monk and was the only Dominican in his lifetime to become a cardinal. His most famous work (The Night of the Firefly) was a condemnation of the practice of reading pagan poetry as a distraction from piety. These excerpts are from his Rule for the Management of Family Care, 1403, in which he outlined five “regulations” for the raising of children.

The first regulation is to have pictures of saintly children or young virgins in the home, in which your children, still in swaddling clothes, may take delight and thereby be gladdened by acts and signs pleasing to childhood. And what I say of pictures applies also to statues. It is well to have a Virgin Mary with the Child in arms, with a little bird or apple in His hand. There should be a good representation of Jesus nursing, sleeping in His Mother’s lap or standing courteously before Her while they look at each other. So let the child see himself mirrored in the Holy Baptist clothed in camel’s skin, a little child who enters the desert, plays with the birds, sucks the honeyed flowers and sleeps on the ground. It will not be amiss if he should see Jesus and the Baptist, Jesus and the boy Evangelist pictured together; the slaughtered Innocents, so that he may learn the fear of weapons and of armed men. Thus it is desirable to bring up little girls in the contemplation of the eleven thousand Virgins as they discourse, pray and suffer. I should like them to see Agnes with her little fat lamb, Cecilia crowned with roses, Elizabeth with roses in her cloak, Catherine and her wheel with other such representations as may give them with their milk the love of virginity, a longing for Christ, a hatred of sin, make them despise vanity, avoid bad company and begin through the consideration of the saints the contemplation of the Supreme Saint of Saints. For this reason you know that representations of the angels and saints are permitted and intended for the instruction of the unlearned.


Translation: Giovanni Dominici, Regola del governo di cura familiare, parte quarta: “On the Education of Children,” trans. Arthur Basil Coté, Ph.D. diss., The Catholic University of America, 1927, p. 34.

Original: Giovanni Dominici, Regola del governo di cura familiare (Florence: Presso Angiolo Garinei Libraio, 1860).