Two Pilgrims

Saint James the Pilgrim by Juan de Juanes. Oil on board, from the church of the Convent of Corona de Jesús de los Religiosos Recoletos de San Francisco, Valencia. Museum of Santiago and the Pilgrimages, Santiago de Compostela.

The medieval ideal of a Christian life — that of a traveller who existed in the world without becoming a part of it, a viator or pilgrim whose thoughts and actions were constantly directed towards the afterlife — remained an essential part of the theological and cultural heritage of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and was one of many archetypes used to characterize or narrate the spiritual progress of converts. Continue reading

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Fingers and Mirrors: Caravaggio and the Conversion of Mary Magdalene in Renaissance Rome

Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, c. 1598. Detroit Institute of Arts, 73.268.

When the Conversion Narratives team went to Fort Worth, Texas for the Sixteenth-Century Studies conference in October last year, we were lucky enough to catch an incredible exhibition, ‘Caravaggio and his Followers in Rome’ at the magnificent Kimbell Art Museum. We particularly enjoyed the chance to spend some time face-to-face with Caravaggio’s potent image of Martha and Mary Magdalene, often called ‘The Conversion of Mary Magdalene’.

The image, which is usually housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, where you can zoom in to see much of the fine detail of the painting, depicts an earnest Martha persuading a lavishly-dressed Mary of her sins. For Roman viewers, the scene would have gained a particular frisson from their knowledge that the sitter who portrayed Mary was a well-known courtesan, Fillide Melandroni (Martha may have been another courtesan, Anna Bianchini) — so that the dynamic of the painting is frustrated by the non-conversion of the real-life counterpart to this ambiguously pious figure. Continue reading

Cultural Encounters: Jesus and Jerusalem in the Mughal Court

Mughal Painting from the Royal Court, c. 1600

Searching the V&A catalogue, I stumbled across this fabulous image. It is a characteristically refined and naturalistic painting done by an unknown artist at the Mughal royal court, probably between 1600 and 1610. The Mughal Empire stretched across most of present-day India and Pakistan, where it consolidated the presence of Islam, and spread Muslim (and particularly Persian) arts and culture into South Asia. Continue reading

Early modern word of the day: ‘collop’

NB: An occasional (not daily!) feature…

In Philip Massinger’s The Renegado, or The Gentleman of Venice, a play first performed in 1624 and published in 1630, Gazet, a bumbling and clownish servant, resists conversion to Islam, exclaiming:

                                      No, so I should lose

A collop of that part my Doll enjoined me

To bring home as she left it: ‘tis her venture,

Nor dare I barter that commodity

Without her special warrant. (1.38-42)

What Gazet is worried about is circumcision. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that a collop is an egg fried on bacon, which — though Doll might well enjoy it — doesn’t seem quite right here. The term gradually shifted to mean any slice of meat (though presumably Gazet is keen not to experience the popular dish of ‘minced collops’). Continue reading

Conversion in the Vatican secret archives: Lux in Arcana

During a recent trip to Rome I had the chance to visit the exhibition ‘Lux in Arcana’ (light in secret matters) at the Capitoline museums, an unprecedented collection of 100 documents from the Vatican secret archives brought together to celebrate the 4th Centenary of the archive’s foundation. The exhibition incorporates a rich spectrum of previously unseen documents charting the Vatican’s role in epochal moments in religious and political history. Continue reading

Unsavoury conversions

A fifteenth-century spice box

Sir Thomas Browne was an English author and physician, whose interests ranged from the bronze age practice of urn burial to astrology, biblical hermeneutics, and the mystical significance of the quincunx (the arrangement of five units in a pattern like the dots on the five-spot side of a dice). His 1646 Pseudodoxica epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many Received Tenets, and commonly Presumed Truths constituted a vast encyclopedia of misconceptions, false assumptions, and untruths, which he aimed to put to rest once and for all. Continue reading