tavola di nostra donna;

1 tavola di nostra donna con tabernacolo;

ii sportelli di tavola di nostra donna;

1 tavola del nostro signore Gesu Christo

Many of the items found in Florentine household inventories provide evidence of lay piety and offer glimpses into the spiritual lives of the city’s affluent householders. Expensive items like amber rosary beads or codices containing scriptural readings (Saint Paul's letters, or the Gospels, for example) regularly appear in the documents, and may have been included for their monetary as well as spiritual value. However, the religious items most frequently listed are the tavole di nostra donna, panel paintings featuring an image of the Virgin Mary created for personal prayer and devotion.

Artists of the period often painted icons and holy images on panels made from poplar, a tree native to the region. To prepare the wood for painting, they first applied several coats of a glue-like material called size, then an overlay of linen, multiple layers of gesso, and then finally the painted image. Some of the panels listed in the Florentine inventories also mention a tabernacle attached to the painted surface, while others refer to small doors or sportelli, presumably used to cover the Virgin’s image once the owner had finished praying. Considering that devotional panels appear in roughly half of all the lists of household items currently in the Florentine Wards collection, it is clear that the practice of praying or singing in their presence was quite common. The nightly singing of devotional hymns was such an important part of fourteenth-century lay confraternal practice, for example, that it was written into the statutes of many of these same religious organizations.

In the inventories, devotional panels are usually found in the bedrooms and smaller, enclosed, spaces around the house. Oftentimes, an inventory lists not just one, but multiple panels per household, located in different rooms of the house. To take an example, this month's essay features the home of Tomaso di Firenze, inventoried in November of 1390, which contained three painted panels of the Virgin: one in the first bedroom, another in the second, and the third in a small room next to the kitchen, presumably for the devotional practices of the domestic servants. Tomaso’s home must have been very dedicated to religious worship, for a fourth panel painted with an image of Christ (del nostro signore Gesu Christo) was also found in the second bedroom chamber, listed a few items below the panel of the Virgin.

Further reading:

Jennifer Meagher, “Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–). http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/iptg/hd_iptg.htm (September 2010); accessed July 6, 2022.

Victor Michael Schmidt, Painted piety : panel paintings for personal devotion in Tuscany, 1250-1400. Florence: Centro Di, 2005.