21. “Holy Dolls”: The Christ Child

by Ellie Johnson (@elliejohns0n1)

In 2017, the Madonnas and Miracles exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge featured a wooden doll of the Christ child. This near life-size statuette was the first object visitors encountered in the gallery. 

Attr. Domenico Indivini (c.1445–1502), The Christ Child.1484–90, polychromed wood, 45 x 15 cm. Camerino, Monastero Santa Chiara

Originally belonging to the mystic Camilla Battista de Varano, this ‘holy doll’ has been in the possession of the nuns of the Poor Clares of Santa Chiara in Camerino since the late fifteenth century. In 2016, the convent was destroyed by an earthquake. An image of the Christ doll amidst the rubble was captured by the Mother Superior. Its survival was heralded as a miracle. [1]

The Christ Child amidst the rubble. Camerino, Monastero Santa Chiara

The curators’ note alongside the exhibited doll explained, ‘from the late fifteenth century, the congregation of the faithful queued up to kiss it on the Feast of the Epiphany’.[2] This practice of kissing the infant has been continued by the Convent’s sisters to this day. It reveals the agency of these so-called ‘holy dolls’. 

Across Renaissance Europe, the response of female devotees to these objects imitated forms of play. The child figure was dressed and fed, as well as kissed.[3] This maternal behaviour emulated the Virgin’s bond with her infant child.[4] It also demonstrated the overlap between piety and play in contemporary Catholic devotion.[5]

The image of the Christ child is ubiquitous at this time of year; an unadorned baby Jesus remains the focal point of nativity scenes around the world. However, in tandem with the secularisation of society, the sacrality of religious statues has been increasingly dismissed. 

This ‘holy doll’ encourages us to reconsider how the materiality of objects can still inform individuals’ devotional behaviour. For some, the infant Christ represents not only an object of historical interest but a manifestation of the divine. 

[1] J. Moshenska, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play (Stanford, 2019), pp. 41-67.

[2] Moshenska, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play, p. 61. 

[3] S. Ivanič, ‘Early Modern Religious Objects and Materialities of Belief’ in C. Richardson, T. Hamling and David Gaimster (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London, 2017), pp. 329-30.

[4] M. Corry, D. Howard, M. Laven (eds.), Madonnas Miracles: The Holy Home in Renaissance Italy (London, 2017), p. 92.

[5] Moshenska, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play, pp. 41-67.

Image Credit:

  1. R. Casciaro, (ed.), Rinascimento scolpito: Maestri del legno tra Marche e Umbria, (Milan, 2006), cat. 22, p. 161.
  2. J. Moshenska, Iconoclasm as Child’s Play (Stanford, 2019), p. 61. 

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