Sensing the image: gender, piety and images in late medieval Tuscany

Catherine Lawless


The Florentine Dominican preacher Fra Giovanni Dominici (1355–1419) warned his female reader of the dangers to which the senses, and sight in particular, exposed the soul, reminding her of how Eve was led to sin by looking at the apple, Samson by looking at Delilah, and David in looking at Bathsheba. The Franciscan preacher Fra Bernardino da Siena (1380–1444) warned against what was evidently a common practice, that of running to kiss the altar, or the sacred stone, chalice or paten, and reminded his listeners that they were to consider themselves unworthy of such privileges. The sense of touch was often instrumental in obtaining cures, as well as fulfilling ritual requirements. Yet, as the preachers show, the senses, whose site is the body, can be agents of temptation. This essay explores a range of ways in which holy images were ‘sensed’ by women in renaissance Tuscany. My concern, in particular, is with the relationship between the sense of touch and images, especially small panel paintings.

Keywords: devotional image, senses, medieval women, popular piety, preaching, saints

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Lawless (PDF, 1MB)


Biographical note

Catherine Lawless is director of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies in the School of Histories and Humanities in Trinity College, Dublin. She is interested in late medieval Tuscan art, with a particular emphasis on devotional imagery, gender and representation.