Renaissance Art and Conception!

I hope the title of my post grabbed your attention! I’ve been reading a terribly interesting book this afternoon: Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy. This book includes a chapter by Caroline P. Murphy, a scholar on 16th century artist Lavinia Fontana.1 Murphy’s chapter discusses how art was used in conjunction with the conception and delivery of children, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

To introduce this aspect of her argument, Murphy mentions how people in early modern Europe were both “appalled and fascinated by the birth of monstrous children” (e.g. children with severe birth defects).2 It was believed in order to avoid the conception of a monstrous child, a woman should look at pictures of beautiful figures. In essence, this beautiful image was supposed to have “a positive morphological effect on the child in [the woman’s] womb.”3 Consequently, some pictures with beautiful figures were designed so that they could be placed over a bed or attached to the bedframe (since the bed was the place where sexual intercourse would take place). In addition, a pregnant woman would spend much of her time resting on the bed, and she would have additional opportunities to look at the beautiful figures (and positively affect the growth of the child).

So what constituted a “beautiful figure” in 16th century Bologna, the city in which Lavinia Fontana worked? You may be think that such figures were mythological, such as Venus or Cupid. Actually, due to the Counter-Reformation and promotion of religious imagery, it is more likely that women looked at images of Mary and the Christ Child. Murphy mentions a few Holy Family paintings by Lavinia Fontana which were probably bought for married couples, one being The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child (Boston Museum of Fine Arts).

However, I think there is one more painting by Fontana which should be added to Murphy’s discussion. Given Murphy’s emphasis on childbirth, I think it’s surprising that she did not discuss Fontana’s Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis (1578, shown right) in her article.* Not only do these beautiful figures fit with other Holy Family images that Murphy discusses, but this painting also includes a depiction of Saint Margaret: the patron saint of childbirth! (Saint Margaret is identified on the left, through her symbol of the dragon.)

Couldn’t this image have been a source of comfort to pregnant women at the time? Murphy mentions how some images of the Holy Family include St. Elizabeth; the inclusion of St. Elizabeth would have been comforting for a female viewer, particularly a woman who was attempting to get pregnant (since Elizabeth conceived in old age). Although this painting does not depict Elizabeth, I think this inclusion of St. Margaret in this painting would have served as a source of comfort too (and it seems to be an even more appropriate connection, given St. Margaret’s role and patronage!).

Interestingly, the Davis Museum and Cultural Center of Wellesly College (which has this painting on loan), does not make any mention of Murphy’s argument in their webpage for this painting (and their bibliography does not cite Murphy). I’m going to have to write them – I think they need to slightly modify their discussion of this painting!

*Update: the comments section for this post discusses Murphy’s reasoning for not including this painting in her argument.

1 Caroline P. Murphy, “Lavinia Fontana and the Female Life Cycle Experience,” in Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by Geraldine A. Johnson and Sara F. Matthews Grieco (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 111-138.

2 Ibid., 120.

3 Ibid., 121.

  • heidenkind says:

    What happened to footnote 3?

    This is really interesting! I never would have drawn this connection. I wonder if there was a visual exchange between these birth pictures and more prestigious artworks that might have gone in a cathedral? Presumably they were relatively inexpensive?

  • M says:

    Oops! I just added footnote #3. Thanks for catching that, heidenkind.

    You bring up an interesting idea between cathedral/public art and these birth pictures. From what I gather, these pictures would have been much smaller than anything placed in a cathedral. The Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis is about 4' x 3' (127 x 104.1 cm), which seems to be much larger than the other paintings mentioned by Murphy (especially if some of these paintings were hung on the bedframe). I wonder if Murphy discounted this St. Margaret painting because of its size? Murphy also mentions that many (but not all) of these bedroom paintings were made on copper (see p. 126 of her article), but the painting I have suggested is an oil on canvas.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    I think this belief persisted well into the Nineteenth Century. At least, I vaguely recall Mary Sheriff writing about it in one of her books (perhaps the one on Vigee Lebrun… if you like, I could find the reference).

    And then there's the famous cartoon of a pregnant woman trying to enter one of the impressionist exhibitions and being prevented by a well-intentioned gendarme. This reminds us that there was a flip side to the scenario you discuss: looking at "bad" or disturbing imagery was thought to lead to ugly children (or even, perhaps, a miscarriage?).

  • e says:

    This is really interesting!

    It makes me wonder about what other types of suspicions or folklore were also once (and are currently are) dealt with via art. One that is not quite so dramatic as hoping for pretty babies is, perhaps, the practice in many LDS homes or church lessons of displaying pictures of happy couples in wedding clothes outside of temples. Kind of like the idea of if you look at the pictures of people in wedded bliss AT the temple long enough, you'll want that for yourself and expect nothing less (this seems especially familiar to me when I think back on my Beehive days).

    But, I suppose, there's many examples like that: where we use examples demonstrated in art as a way of hoping for a desired outcome.

  • Zillah says:

    as soon as i read your first paragraph, i thought of st margaret. in the later middle ages, pregnant women would carry around amulets depicting st margaret or slips of parchment/paper with prayers to margaret written on them. sometimes they'd eat apples w/ invocations of margaret carved into them, have images and prayers present at the childbirth, etc. etc.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Another amazing post M! You are definitely very prolific this week!

    I love that Zillah mentioned St Margaret. My favourite instance of this is in van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait, where St Margaret/a dragon is carved into the bed head – probably one of the strongest clues in favour of the reading that the female figure is/was pregnant

    Pic here for those curious:

    Keep up the great work M!

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Here's that Mary Sheriff reference: it's chapter two of The Exceptional Woman: Elisabeth Vigee Lebrun and the Cultural Politics of Art ("The Mother's Imagination and the Father's Tradition"). Mary cites to Marie-Helene Huet and other scholars who have written about this.

  • Erin Fickert-Rowland says:

    Having studied Holy Family portraits within the context of wealthy family and church commissions, I wish there would have been more information about how images like this affected the daily life of more common families. It's a very intriguing subject, and I appreciate you sharing it!

  • M says:

    Ben, thanks for including the Sheriff reference! I'm interested in checking into this. I'm surprised that this belief lasted into the 19th century (I would have assumed that at least the Enlightenment would have dispelled some of these ideas!). I'll also try to find a copy of the cartoon of the pregnant woman that you mentioned.

    e, you've brought up some interesting ideas about how art can be used to hope for a desired outcome. I wonder if there are more examples like these ones for pregnant women, where art can somehow effect a physiological change on an individual (or in this case, an unborn child). That would be an interesting research project!

    Zillah, I love the St. Margaret examples that you mentioned! I think I'm going to send hopeful mothers-to-be gifts of apples that contain invocations to St. Margaret. 🙂 Your comment also made me wonder if Margaret's saintly role can specifically tie to the creation/formation of beautiful children in the womb. She is generally connected with fertility and childbirth, but I wonder if there are any texts which specifically discuss how Margaret helps to ensure that the unborn child is beautiful/healthy. I'll have to look into that.

    H Niyazi, I also thought of the van Eyck example! That's a great example to mention in connection with this post, since the image of St. Margaret decorates the Arnolfini bedpost, and the images that I mention were intended to also decorate the bedroom. I wonder if Northern Europeans subscribed to any of the ideas that Murphy mentioned regarding beautiful images/children.

    Erin Fickert-Rowland, thanks for your comment! I agree: I think there needs to be more information and research on if/how images of the Holy Family affected the daily lives of more common people! Murphy's article is a great contribution to that topic.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    Here's the image (by Cham).

    I would guess that he's making a connection between impressionism and being impressionable (see Richard Shiff on this subject!).

  • M says:

    Thanks, Ben! Ha ha! I've never seen this before. I'll hang onto this link for future reference. In fact, I'm introducing Impressionism to my students next week; I'll have to show this to them! (And I'll check out what Shiff has to say, too.)

    I'm glad that you could "update" this conversation and add a fun 19th century twist to the topic.

  • M says:

    For anyone who is interested (and that includes myself!), Obridge sent me the Shiff reference through Twitter:

    "Shiff ref = chap 2 of Cezanne & the End of Impressionism (Defining "Impressionism" & the "Impression") Short, dense, useful."

    The chapter can be accessed online here, through a Google Books preview.

  • this write life says:

    Great research! Never have seen any references to such folklore.

  • M says:

    I've been in contact with Caroline P. Murphy, the author of the article which I mentioned in this post. As I mentioned in an earlier comment (see above), I wondered if the scale of Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis prevented this painting from being included in Murphy's discussion. She wrote back to me this morning, explaining the following:

    "You're right, it was a question of scale which kept that painting out of my argument, it's a painting that would have been kept in a private chapel rather than a bedchamber. That wouldn't preclude a pregnant woman of the house from praying to Saint Margaret of course, or that Margaret was the name saint of a female household member. I do discuss the painting in a chapter on Lavinia Fontana's early works in my book on her."

    So, my friends, there you have it!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.