5. Hearth and Home

Lay Piety, Women, and the Family


Though people were highly critical of the church and there were great developments in the secular realm, the Renaissance was a time of deep religious faith.


The stories from the Bible had deep personal meaning for Renaissance Italians and

the Virgin Mary was central to men’s and women’s devotion.


Piero della Francesca Madonna del Parto 

Many scenes from her life celebrating her motherhood were represented in the arts.

A very commonly portrayed image of Mary was in the scene of the Annunciation, when the Angel Gabriel announces to her that she is to become a mother:

Martini annunciation

Simone Martini Annunciation




Beato Angelico Annunciation


Leonardo annuncLeonardo Da Vinci Annunciation      

During the Renaissance, concepts of saintliness and motherhood were closely linked.

Lippi madonna

Filippo Lippi Madonna and Child 

Women played an important role in the spiritual life of Renaissance Italy.

They  attended the sermons of preachers such as San Bernardino of Siena in large numbers:


Sano di Pietro San Bernardino Preaching in the Campo



Women could express their spirituality in their secular lives of wives and mothers, performing works of charity and private devotion.


They could become nuns.


Sofonisba Anguissola The Artist’s Sister as a Nun


However, in Renaissance Italy, women’s options in life were essentially limited:

the convent…

Tor de specchi convent rome

or marriage.

Buonomini marriage



There was also a third way.

Women could become members of tertiary orders, helping the poor and sick in their communities.

St Catherine at Avignon PdiGiovanni

Renowned holy woman St. Catherine of Siena was a Dominican tertiary who counseled the pope in Avignon



margaret of cortona

Margaret of Cortona was a Franciscan tertiary who founded a hospital. 

These women were only two of many “living saints” who were venerated during their own lifetimes.


There were many others…


Umiliana de Cerchi

Reliquary Bust of Umiliana de’ Cerchi, c.1380 Museum of Santa Croce


Not all women, however, were suited to the religious life.

Simone_Martini_047 st margaret

But it was not so simple getting married – you had to have a dowry.


Gentile da Fabriano St. Nicholas provides dowries a poor man’s daughters


Families that could not afford to marry their daughters often put them in convents, whether or not the young woman had a religious calling


Antponiazzo Romano annunci

Antoniazzo Romano Annunciation with the Virgin Mary shown giving poor girls bags of money for their dowries.


This was especially true in wealthier families, as dowries became more and more costly.

Here are two portraits of elite women, painted probably on the occasion of their marriages:


Antonio Pollaiuolo Portrait of a Young Woman


Lippiportraityoung woman

Filippo Lippi Portrait of a Young Woman

These lovely, privileged young brides had limited legal rights, control over their own property, and often little say in the raising of their own children.

Although the Madonna was often portrayed breast feeding the infant Jesus, women of the upper classes rarely nursed their own babies.


Leonardo Madonna Litta

A link to a site with many images of Maria lactans (nursing Mary):http://www.fisheaters.com/marialactans.html

Instead, those who could afford it hired wet nurses to breast feed their babies.


Ghirlandaionativityof the virginsmn

Domenico Ghirlandaio The Birth of Mary


Wet nurses were also employed by orphanages.



Domenico di Bartolo The Rearing and Marriage of Female Foundlings in Siena



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