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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Time and Narrative

Painting in the service of religion

Painting in the service of religion

Whereas today we are accustomed to encountering Italian religious paintings in the rarefied atmosphere of museums, at the time of their production such focus on them solely as works of art would have seemed naive and unsatisfying. Within medieval and Renaissance society, art served religion by aiding devotional experiences in specific practical ways. In a sermon published in 1492, the Dominican friar Michele da Carcano summarizes three principal reasons often cited to justify the presence of paintings in churches:

First, on account of the ignorance of simple people, so that those who are not able to read the scriptures can yet learn by seeing the sacraments of our salvation and faith in pictures…. Second, images were introduced on account of our emotional sluggishness; so that men who are not aroused to devotion when they hear about the histories of the Saints may at least be moved when they see them, as if actually present, in pictures…. Third, they were introduced on account of our unreliable memories…. Because many people cannot retain in their memories what they hear, but they do remember if they see images.*

Each of these functions rests on the capacity of images to outstrip the power of words (whether read, heard, or remembered) in bolstering religious faith. Through the vividness, immediacy, and universality of their imagery, paintings packed a powerful punch—allowing the illiterate to read, the phlegmatic to feel, and the forgetful to remember.


* Fra Michele da Carcano, Sermones quadragesimales fratis Michaelis de Mediolano de decem preceptis, translated in Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), p. 41.