Florentine Street Shrines - Can We Do This Today? 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 buildings that line the narrow streets. Many date back to the time of the building itself.

Not all are still obviously the focus for prayer, many seemed to unnoticed in a city in which Renaissance art abounds and much of the population has fallen away from 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 suggest that if what is done is truly beautiful, even non-believers would want it and it would, to a large degree, disarm potential critics by removing their desire to be offended by 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, a Mandylion, which is just 6' x 4' in size, 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 in such a way that it gives the impression that they are peeking into his personal space and seeing an image that is their 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 in fact doing us a favor by objecting to the kitsch 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 overgrow, slightly the images. The paintings are prints that I obtained from a website selling them on rustic wooden planks, which I have varnished and screwed 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, here: 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 the house prices up - even if you are selling to an atheist, I suggest!

Just a thought.