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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Time and Narrative

Painting as an aid to religion

Painting as an aid to religion

Surviving firsthand accounts attest to the use of paintings to facilitate meditation and prayer during devotional exercises. In a personal memoir, the wealthy Florentine merchant Giovanni Morelli (1371–1444) described his reliance on a representation of the Crucifixion while commemorating the anniversary of the death of his young son, Alberto:

I knelt with bare knees before the figure of the crucified son of God to which [Alberto] had commended his bodily health during his illness…. And when I considered with what harsh, acerbic and dark torment Jesus Christ [was] crucified, whose figure I gazed upon, had brought [us] back from eternal pain, I could not bear to look upon him with indifferent eyes. Rather, my heart and all my senses heightened to the greatest tenderness through, I believe, a pious gift He gave me, [and] my face was bathed in tears from my eyes.*

During prayer, Morelli said, he was “gazing continually at the image and figure of the devout Crucified [and] fixing my eyes on his precious wounds.”* The searing imagery of the Crucifixion served as an emotional catalyst, cultivating the penitent emotional state that Morelli believed would recommend his prayers to God.


* Giovanni Morelli, Ricordi, in Evelyn Welch, Art and Society in Italy 1350–1500 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 309.