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October 3, 2006

Shrines: Images of Italian Worship

(Book available October 17 ) With photographs by Steven Rothfeld and text by Frances Mayes, this is one of those slender and lovely gift books that you give to people who liked Under the Tuscan Sun or whose blogs feature devotional art or pictures of Italy.

The small fragments of text by Frances Mayes (after the introduction) neither help nor harm the momentum of the book. Her name is there to capitalize on the Italian (particularly Tuscan) connection, and her thoughts about the subject of the photographs are neither deep nor stirring. However, the photographs are fascinating and lovely. The one gripe I have is that they are not better identified on the page. I'd like more information--where in Italy, Instead in the back, we get thumbnails of the photographs with a location like "Tuscany." I guess I can understand that in a way, because you wouldn't necessarily want to encourage increased traffic along some of the lanes and road you see pictured.

The theme of the book is "shrines" in the lower-case meaning of the word--personal, small devotional sites, intimate spiritual places made public so that in some small way you share your devotion with others. There are about 100 images of shrines of all sorts--from frescoes or murals on the walls of what look like apartment buildings, to little boxes that look like those information pamphlet boxes you can find at the entrances to some state and national parks where there are not a lot of facilities, to small holes in the brickwork, to constructed house-front decorations.

Two photographs I found particularly interesting and moving. One of them shows a close-up of what looks like a cranny in brickwork. Within this small space are four figures--a small crucifix, tilted to the back so the upper beam is resting on the brickwork in the back, and to its right, a small figurine of Mary and two containers of slightly different size of Lourdes water--now empty. All three images of Mary came from the shrine at Lourdes. This small grotto, remembering the larger grotto, is just a little insight into the necessity of devotion among the people who made it. A shrine composed of three cheap, plastic images of Mary in a grotto the size of one brick is somehow a moving testimony to the love shown to the Blessed Virgin, the impulse to adore.

The image that most caught my eye, because of my past associations and my love of Mary, Star of the Sea, was a small shrine that decorates the front of a townhoouse, store, or apartment building. It consists of a small altar formed of a kind of coquina with enormous Triton and Strombus shells. Above it is something that looks like an abalone shell, topped in turn by an image of an anchor formed of cockles or oyster shells. This anchor is flanked by two encased panels that are filled with what appear to be images of the Most Pure Heart of Mary--the Immaculate Heart. Above these, the main image, housed in an ornate frame of scallops and cockles--a small alabaster, or marble image of Mother and child, recessed in a light blue grotto. It's so completely out of place in this small alley or street, and so wonderfully conceived that it really captured my eye and my imagination. This is the kind of grotto I would like to dedicate to the Blessed Mother, were I in the business of doing so.

And this last thought brings out one of the poignant touches of the book--these are a commonplace in Italy. Perhaps not everywhere, but they can be encountered with some frequency. Except in the more Hispanic neighborhoods near me, there is nothing like this in the American Way of devotion. In fact, most of the little shrines pictured in this book would likely be removed as eyesores or nuisances in most communities in the U.S., and I include heavily Catholic communities in that description. We are almost embarrassed by our devotions, it seems. And we have lost the good sense of Chesterton--"if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly."

A recommended gift-book for the right recipient. Lovely pictures, unobtrusive text. I would like to note that editors might want to consider adding descriptions if this goes into a second printing.

Posted by Steven Riddle at October 3, 2006 8:58 AM

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