With the exception of saving the soul it appears that religious imagery was more often used during the Renaissance for propaganda and the manipulation of society for social concerns.  In the care of one’s own soul, private devotion was enough, although a need to maintain and prove status could never be completely ignored.  In the use of illuminated manuscripts and tombs, status and identity was inseparable from how one was perceived in terms of piety.  Finance, trading and concerns over the fairness of salvation for the poor are addressed in either combining cultures or radically altering faith. Renaissance knowledge and belief in God was a complex mix, vital for the soul and something completely taken for granted and so this is why other concerns were shared using religious art.

The religious concerns surrounding the use of illuminated manuscripts can be seen as an intensely private affair.  The image entitled, ‘The Visitation’ by Gerard Horenbout c.1519-20, (see below) is included in a book of hours called the, ‘Sforza Hours’ and these books were designed for private, devotional use.  To commission one however, was bound up with the more visible social concerns of wealth, both financial and intellectual.  These books were an expensive, luxury status symbol for the nobility and royalty. They were unique, bespoke and laboriously hand-crafted. The religious concerns reflected, were those of the patron but often they would not be completed and could therefore contain the concerns of more than one person as they were passed on after death.


The Visitation, Sforza Hours,  Gerard Horenbout (fol.61.r), c.1519-20, British Library Add. MS 34294

‘The Visitation’ is included in just such a case.  The entire hours were passed onto Margaret of Austria already containing many miniatures chosen by Bona Sforza. Margaret’s concern when she commissioned this particular miniature was for her meditation on her devotion to the Virgin.  It could be included within the prayers connected to the Prime or Nativity.  Historian Alixe Bovey, tells us that the ‘Elizabeth’ greeting the Virgin contained in this image is represented as Margaret. These types of manuscript, were known to bring worship and divinity into the everyday lives of the owners. Margaret is clearly brought into very close contact with the Virgin.  Enhancing this entry into daily life, the image is not as suggestive of the antique as many illuminated manuscripts are.  The character of Elizabeth is dressed in medieval clothing.  In addition to this the gatehouse and palace depicted are reminiscent of her own seat at Malines rather than within the setting of Judea.

Social concerns surrounding Margaret’s attitude to family can also be open to interpretation.  She has portrayed herself as devoted family member to the Virgin as well as a devoted viewer of Mary outside of the book.  This may shed light on her own concerns in coming to terms with her place within her family and her femininity, in particular her childlessness.  There are no inscriptions that tell the viewer that Elizabeth is Margaret which suggests that these concerns were as private as her devotional, hourly meditations.  They could relate to her connection with Elizabeth as a ‘barren’ woman and also her Christian duty to care for her nephew and god-son Charles, who would later become Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Her social considerations must also have included her status as a Burgundian noblewoman.  The tradition of including herself in devotional imagery may have come from her mother, Mary of Burgundy.  Mary is pictured at a window that shows the Virgin and Child, by the Vienna Master. (See below).  In turn her stepmother, Margaret of York is pictured with Christ appearing to her, in a miniature by the Master of Guillebert de Lannoy. (See below).  This concern to have her social and familial status immortalised must have been important to her, compounded once again by the Malines gatehouse.

LEFT: Mary of Burgundy (?) Reading, The Hours of Mary of Burgundy, Vienna Master (fol. 14v), c.1470-5, Austrian National Library Codex Vindobonensis 1857.
RIGHT: Christ Appearing to Margaret of York, Nicholas Finet’s Dialogue de la Duchesse de Borgogne à Jesus Christ, Master of Guillebert de Lannoy (fol. 1v), c.1468, British Library Add. MS 7970.

The concerns of the artist were of course to meet the needs of his patron but his completion of ‘The Visitation’ showcases his skill and the concern he would have had for his reputation within elite circles.  Birage PietaAs Margaret had presented him with a partially completed manuscript, Horenbout had to consider how to keep the work continuous.  Although he made the figures less iconic and more modelled, he adhered to a similar palette of bright reds and blues by adding the pebbles.  This is visible in comparison with the ‘Pietà’ by Birago.

                                                                 Pieta, Sforza Hours, Giovanni Pietro Birago, fol. 165, c.1490, British Library Add. MS 34294.



The ‘Virgin and Child with Saints’ attributed to Zafuris or Ritzos, of the late fifteenth-century, (below), embodies both religious and social concerns. The foremost religious concern is the veneration of the Virgin and the social concerns are about the effective continuation of an integration of two distinct cultures; Greek Orthodox in post-Byzantine Crete and Catholicism via the Venetians in Crete.  These concerns also overlap, so that easy trade routes and commercial opportunities can continue.

ritzos or zafuris

Virgin with Child and Saints, Late 15thC Tempera on Panel 25x25cm, Andreas Ritzos or Nikolaos Zafuris, Private Collection, London.

The religious concerns shown by this triptych begin with the hierarchical nature of the positioning of the Virgin as central both to each faith and in the triptych. This reveals the likely belief of patron, artist and contemporary viewer that the intercession of the Virgin in their prayers was particularly powerful and sought after. This central panel combines both systems of worship in its portrayal of Mary, for the religious purpose connected with possible joint ownership and viewing of it.  This is achieved by using the Madre della Consolazione type in which the infant Jesus is placed so his head faces away from his legs. Both cultures are represented as this type, in direct translation as, ‘Mother of Consolation’ in Italian, foresees the suffering of Jesus by his mother as a focus for devotion.  This is mirrored by the Orthodox tradition of the Hodegetria.  This legend of St Luke painting Mary with Jesus during her lifetime offers express permission from the Virgin for the contemporary viewer to use such an icon for devotion.  Many of these fore-running images show the Mother with an anguished expression as she foresees the fate of her son. In this panel she also has sadness, demonstrated by her downcast expression.  The infant she holds has a mature face and one of his arms is slightly raised, although the elbow is bent.  Also, the Virgin also wears a brooch which is a western tradition.  All these elements make a true amalgamation of Orthodox and Catholic tradition.

Crete had always been an important and valued possession of Venice due to its geographical trading position and natural resources. The social and perhaps financial concerns can also be identified.  The Byzantine state had long used images of the Virgin to promote power. A powerful message then, is sent by the juxtaposition of key saints to unify social concerns, with the Virgin.  Art historian Maria Georgopoulou, asserts that the Venetians wanted to rule, not only in terms of military conquest, but offer more of a continuation of Byzantine heritage.  She states that, ‘this demanded a skilful manipulation of the past of Crete that conformed to Venice’s territorial claims.’ This may demonstrate why the artist has chosen specific saints to account for the Venetians love of this colony and the resulting mixed marriages and commercial endeavours.  The saints to the left on the triptych are Peter and Paul.  Interestingly the patron saints of both Venice and Crete were disciples of these two saints were Mark and Titos, respectively.  As Peter and Paul embrace both equally sized, they show the desirability of the two cultures to embrace as equals in the late fifteenth-century.  On Crete, over time, the cults of Titos and Mark had become equally venerated with very similar ceremony which incorporated both processions and relics.  Key social concerns, it appears, are that mixed households are treated equally and the retention of a stable continuation for trade routes here.

Social concerns could also be financial for the artists.  The other saints to the right of the triptych continue to allude to a shared and therefore emergent new, culture.  They are St David, exclusively Catholic and possibly St Lawrence.  The latter was excessively popular in hybrid Cretan icons.  This choice could point to commercial motives.  The market for mixed iconography appears to have been large.  Venetian Giorgio Basjo and Grecian Petro Varsama commissioned three Cretan artists to make no less than 700 icons on a very tight deadline.  Not only do these patrons represent both cultures in themselves the work required is asked for in both the ‘Greek fashion’ and the ‘Latin fashion’ showing a vast and culturally diverse market was available for Cretan made icons.

By viewing the tomb of Alice de la Pole c.1470 we move away from the concerns of a co-operative society and turn inwards to the religious and solitary concerns associated with death.  Renaissance attitudes to death are made explicit.  Preparing for death and the medieval belief in both purgatory and the afterlife were integral to contemporary devotion. The constant awareness of death being the great equalizer is highlighted by texts such as the ‘Ars Moriendi’ c.1440’s-1450’s and the ‘Danse Macabre’ c.1425.  Death would often be represented by a cadaver.  The idea behind having a readiness for death really meant addressing two key themes: being in touch with one’s own humility and facing a journey in the afterlife as a way to heaven.  Purgatory, seen as heaven’s antechamber, was thought to be unpleasant and the only way to hasten the process was to be a pious individual, to provide financially for those less fortunate and to incite prayers and remembrances from the living.  Therefore, the opinion of the original viewer, in this case was incredibly important.  It was also essential to pray for your ancestors. ADLPoledanse-macabre-alabaster

Ewelme-D09 Alice de la Pole’s tomb displays all these religious concerns.  She sought to commission work on her tomb as soon as she could, (it turned out, some six years prior to her death) showing her contemporaries her readiness to depart.  Her tomb displays many heraldic emblems of her family revealing her religious concern to viewers that her family must be remembered and hastened through Purgatory and her social concern that her status be recognised.  Her effigy is dressed befitting her status and her hands are closed in a pious gesture her contemporaries would have recognised. Her religious concerns are further conveyed to viewers by her state of dress.  It shows that she took the vows of a religious order, thus adhering to a chaste life.


All three images: Tomb of Alice de la Pole, c.1470, alabaster and stone, life size, St. Mary’s Church, Ewelme. Photos; M. Daisly.

This is juxtaposed with her cadaver effigy, reminiscent of the representation of Death in the ‘Danse Macabre’ a largely familiar image to a contemporary viewer in many other media.  The cadaver shows that despite her status, death has come and this seems to warn the living of their own inevitable doom. In addition to this the cadaver shows the onlooker that Alice de la Pole was ready, accepting and humble before God and Death.

The social concerns are intrinsically linked with the religious, in this art.  The tomb is located within the buildings that incorporate the extensive charitable work of the family.  This work offered a chapel, a grammar school, and almshouses. In addition thirteen poor men had their spiritual and educational needs met, all in return for their regular prayers for Alice and her family in perpetuity to reduce Purgatory.

Finally, a completely new viewpoint. Turning to the woodcut ‘Christ the True Light’, by Hans Holbein the younger, c.1522 we can see the concerns for the original viewer to interpret are the saving of the soul, the teaching that their current way of worship leaves them open to error.  The busy printing houses of Basle were concerned with spreading state propaganda to change the way society found salvation.

Christ the True Light, Woodcut 9x28cm, Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1522-3, British Museum, London.

The image was produced by the state to form part of a piece of didactic literature.  It seems to sit somewhere in between images to be idolised and a completely iconoclastic mindset.  The print shows Christ indicating a light upon a beautifully ornate candelabra, he is welcoming a group of peasants to see the light.  Simultaneously a group of sumptuously dressed members of a Catholic hierarchy, including the pope recognisable by his tiara, follow humanist inspirations Plato and Aristotle into a hole. The teaching here in terms of contemporary religious concern is explicit.  Those who have become rich through selling indulgences and allowing the corruption of the Church are turning away from the truth.  The inclusion of the welcomed peasants to see the light for themselves relates to more than one theme.  They should have access to the Word of God in their own language for truth and understanding no matter how lowly or poor they are and the money spent on magnificent art should be spent on the poor and finally, the way to God has been corrupted by analysing the philosophy of pagans.  The first of these points is emphasised by the symbols of the four evangelists on the candelabra which original viewers would have recognised easily.  It shows them that the gospels are the way to God.  There is no allusion to Purgatory or the possibility of buying into heaven with lavish donations, faith in the Word can be universally achieved by rich and poor alike.

Quite clearly the use of Christ’s image here is pedagogical rather than for worship this was absolutely central in the religious art of the Reformation but hotly debated in the early sixteenth-century.  Although the actual religious ideals that can also be seen in ‘Christ the True Light’ and are discussed and somewhat agreed with by Andreas Karlstadt in his 1521 treatise where he attacks religious imagery and the riches of Rome, some of the text suggests he would not have even approved of this image. Key reformer Martin Luther, however, did not agree with iconoclasm and did want his own religious texts illustrated; but only for didactic purpose. He understood the need for contemporary viewers to learn from imagery.  He declared, in his own treatise of 1525, rebuffing Karlstadt, that no-one should feel obliged to destroy images.  The message for his viewers/followers was just like that of the ‘True Light’.  He states,

“One is [only] obligated to destroy them with the

Word… not with the law… but with the gospel.  This

means… to enlighten the conscience that it is idolatry

to worship them… since one is to trust alone in Christ.”


He went on to argue that what already existed could remain or fade with age because as long as the laity had learnt this, all else was inconsequential.

The original viewers of these pieces of work would have been concerned with the safe passage to the afterlife which is why more commercial reasons for acting may have had to have been justified through religious concerns.  A desire for the rich to preserve their status and the natural order of things would also have had to be justified in this way.  Such ideas had become so entrenched that the Reformation could only succeed by the mass production of its text alongside attacks on such powerful imagery.


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