Accessibility statement

Art, Magic and the Miraculous in Renaissance Italy - HOA00104M

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  • Department: History of Art
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Jessica Richardson
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

This module investigates how ideas about magic and miraculous intersected with the visual arts in Renaissance Italy (c.1350-1550). Drawing on a wide range of art and artefacts found throughout the Italian peninsula, it explores how supernatural phenomena had a profound effect on artistic creations, as well how they impacted human interactions with the arts in the period. Furthermore, the module explores the way these challenge the historiographical trajectory of Italian Renaissance art.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

Module aims

In Renaissance Italy (c.1350-1550), magic, miracles and the supernatural permeated ideas about and interactions with art and material objects, and presented particular challenges to artists. Drawing on a wide range of art and artefacts found throughout the Italian peninsula, the module progresses through a series of thematic, object-based case studies, that might include astrology, ancient Greco-Roman myths, the powers attributed to gems and stones, sympathetic magic, miracle-working images, and ex votos.

The module aims to bridge the divide between sophisticated, intellectual artistic programmes related to the cosmos (and magic) and forms of popular devotion manifested in the proliferation of image cults and ex-votos. We will examine anonymously-created works alongside those by Donatello, Sandro Botticelli, Francesco del Cossa, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. Art and images played a crucial role in a period in which ideas about the natural world and the supranatural were being transformed by old and new forms of knowledge, from ancient Greco-Roman and Arabic texts to humanist enquiry, and at a time when miracle-working images, accompanied by vernacular song and devotional texts, formed part and parcel of the religious fabric of cities throughout the peninsula. We will rigorously interrogate a wide range of visual material in variety of media – painting, sculpture, architecture, stones and gems, wax votive offerings – that allows us to question and challenge hierarchies of the arts in the period, combining visual analysis with the primary texts, with a critical eye to past and current scholarship.

The module seeks to provide a solid understanding of key cases, which could be applied to the wider study of the art of the period. It will provide students with an understanding of the historiographical debates about Italian Renaissance art as foundational to the early history of the discipline of Art History. At the same time, it explores how these have intersected and continue to be enriched by cross-disciplinary study. Furthermore, it seeks to understand how these critical debates have shifted across time, with attention given to categories of images that have been traditionally neglected. Students will engage in visual analysis, fostering their ability to connect images with textual sources and, more generally, to the ideas and beliefs of the period. Furthermore, they will develop the ability to bring together complex notions from a number of sources, and to apply these to their own work, tackling new questions and challenging old hierarchies of Italian Renaissance Art.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of the module, students should have acquired:

  • A knowledge of the art and artefacts created throughout the Italian peninsula between the fourteenth and sixteenth century, in a wide-range of media.

  • An understanding of how larger cultural phenomena impacted the arts of the period, and how supernatural phenomena related to the visual culture of Renaissance Italy.

  • The ways complex Renaissance iconographies could be understood in relation to other primary source material, including texts.

  • A developed sense of how transcultural connections and ways of thinking about the material world impacted the arts of the period.

  • A solid grounding in the historiographic debates on Renaissance Italy, and of new directions in the field.

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Assessed Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Assessed Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

You will receive feedback on assessed work within the timeframes set out by the University - please check the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback for more information.

The purpose of feedback is to help you to improve your future work. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further, you are warmly encouraged to meet your Supervisor during their Office Hours.

Indicative reading

  • Belting, Hans. Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

  • Corry, Maya. Deborah Howard and Mary Laven, Madonnas and Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2017. Exhibition catalog.

  • Dooley, Brendan, ed. A Companion to Astrology in the Renaissance. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

  • Freedberg, David. The Power of Images: Studies in the History and Theory of Response. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

  • Holmes, Megan. The Miraculous Image in Renaissance Florence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013.

  • Jacobs, Fredericka H. Votive Panels and Popular Piety in Early Modern Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

  • Nagel, Alexander, and Christopher Wood. Anachronic Renaissance. New York: Zone Books, 2010.

  • Warburg, Aby. The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity: Contributions to the Cultural History of the European Renaissance. Translated by David Britt. Los Angeles: Getty, 1999.

  • Weinryb, Ittai, ed. Ex Voto: Votive Giving Across Cultures. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2015.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.