To have and to hold: possessing the sacred in the late renaissance

Erin E. Benay (Case Western Reserve University)


Private devotional art of the early 17th century often found its place in the galleries of noblemen and women whose diverse collections were symbols not only of stylistic taste, but of their owners’ exhaustive curiosity. In these domestic settings, boundaries between sacred and secular were permeable, as the unprecedented physical intimacy portrayed in popular

religious subjects such as St Matthew and the Angel, the Stigmatisation of St Francis, or Christ’s Agony in the Garden reveal. Representations of the latter reminded viewers of Christ’s human, corporal suffering and suggested a model of resolve strengthened by prayer. The Agony in the Garden appears on the interior of Jacopo Ligozzi’s virtuosic Portable Altar with Carrying Case (1608), likely a Medici gift presented to the Austrian court in anticipation of the marriage of archduchess Maria Maddalena to soon-to-be grand duke Cosimo II. Adorned with lavish botanical motifs on its exterior, the Altar’s potency as a sacred possession was redoubled by the owner’s tactile revelation of the portrayal of Christ supported by an Angel contained inside the case. Comprised of wood, oil on copper, and pietre dure inlay, it is an object intended to be held, opened, and experienced. This paper suggests that Ligozzi’s selective combination of sumptuous materials and choice of subject matter – botanical illustration and Christological iconography – allowed the object to appeal to the full sensorium, and therefore to function as efficaciously as a devotional aid as it did as a curiosity among other rare collectibles.

Keywords: Jacopo Ligozzi, pietre dure, Maria Maddalena, Habsburg, history of collecting, Agony in the Garden, somaesthetic, Galleria dei Lavori, Opificio delle Pietre Dure

Full text: OAJ_issue4_Benay (PDF, 2 MB)


Biographical note

Erin E. Benay is assistant professor of southern renaissance and baroque art at Case Western Reserve University, Ohio. Her research examines the relationship of empiricism and the senses to early modern painting, the history of collecting in 17th-century Europe, and global currents of exchange and mobility in early modern cultural history. Together with Lisa M. Rafanelli, she is the author of Faith, Gender, and the Senses in Italian Renaissance and Baroque Art: Interpreting the Noli me tangere and Doubting Thomas (Ashgate, 2015).Her other publications include essays in Arte Veneta and Caravaggio: Reflections and Refractions (Ashgate 2014). Her next book (under contract with Giles) will focus on Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St Andrew at the Cleveland Museum of Art and reveals the ways in which imperial movement in part obfuscated ‘original’ locations of production, collection, and consumption, in this case between Italy and Spain. Benay’s current research project, Italy By Way of India: Routes of Devotional Knowledge in the Early Modern Period, will consider how travel between Italy and South Asia complicated the iconological construction of saints’ lives.