Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Florentine Street Shrines - Will Today’s Della Robbia Please Step Forward?

When I was studying portrait painting in Florence several years ago, I was struck by the charm of the old street shrines that can be seen built into the walls of the narrow streets all over Italy. Many date back to the time of the building itself.

Not all are still obviously the focus for prayer; many seemed to unnoticed in cities in which Renaissance art abounds, and much of the population has fallen away from the practice of the Faith.
Since then, I have wondered from time to time if this is something we could do today, in a time and in places where Catholicism is not the dominant faith and the driving force the culture?
My feeling is we might, in many instances, struggle to persuade local government to go along with such a thing. However, perhaps if done tastefully and discretely on private property that is visible from the public street, it might be possible.
I believe that if such a thing is truly beautiful, even non-believers would want it; and its beauty would to a large degree disarm potential critics by removing their desire to take offense from outward signs of the Faith. I have a friend who runs a menswear shop in the UK, and he always places a small icon of the face of Christ, (of the Mandylion type) low down on the wall behind the counter. While it is not an obviously bold statement of faith, he deliberately places in such a position that when people pay for their clothes, they will see it on the wall behind the till; this gives the impression that they are peeking into his personal space and seeing an image that is there for his private devotion. He says that nobody ever objected, and many asked about it.
Non-Christians (and for that matter many Christians too) are much more likely to be irritated if the art is ugly or sentimental. I have often wondered, for example, if the militant secularists are perhaps doing us a favor by objecting to the kitschy shopping mall Nativity scenes that seem to be standard issue for retailers nowadays. Perhaps they are the unwitting agents of the Holy Spirit? Before my conversion in my early thirties, piped carol music and brightly-colored plastic McChristmasses gave me the impression that Christianity was for saddoes who didn’t even know that they ought to be embarrassed by being associated with this stuff. This did far more to put me off the Church than tales of Popes fathering illegitimate children or the brutality of the Teutonic Knights in the Baltic and the Middle East!
If we did decide to do this, what form should it take?
Well, here’s an idea. I recently posted a photo of my first stab at creating an outdoor icon corner in a balcony garden.
I am hoping that as the plants grow through spring and summer that the hard edges will soften and grow a little bit over the images. The paintings are prints on rustic wooden planks that I obtained from a website; I have varnished them and fixed them to the stool, which came from a consignment store. 
A reader saw the photos and got in touch with me, suggesting that someone might like to start producing ceramic tiles with the standard core images of the icon corner - Our Lady on the left, the Crucifixion in the center and the Risen Christ on the right, which could then be set into the wall. 
I do not know the economics of tile production, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have beautiful triple sets of tiles? I imagine they might be something like the Della Robbia ceramics, except stylistically Gothic or iconographic (just to suit my personal taste) and polychrome, maybe in the form of a Jonathan Pageau relief carving!
Here is an original Della Robbia.
I once wrote a feature on my blog, thewayofbeauty.org, on how houses in southern Spain have tiles containing geometric patterns set into the walls of their houses, a Christianization of the Islamic cultural inheritance. (Geometric Tile Patterns in Andalusia.)
Perhaps we could have a combination of the two ideas, in which we start to have simple icon-corner triple sets set into such patterns? If done well, it could perhaps even put the house prices up - even if you are selling to an atheist!

Just a thought.

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