Secular Charity, Sacred Poverty: Picturing the Poor in Renaissance Venice

Thomas Richard Nichols

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Citations (Scopus)


The poor were depicted with increasing frequency and prominence in Venetian art of the sixteenth century. This new level of visualization within the fictive space of representation indirectly reflects contemporary attempts to exclude poveri and other undesirables from the actual space of the city. Increased state involvement in poor relief stimulated a new iconography of secular charity featuring almsgiving by patrician officials, presented in an hierarchical manner that pointedly departs from the more communal depictions in paintings commissioned by the city's non-noble scuole. But it was in religious painting for the city's churches and monasteries that the visual imagery of poverty was most dramatically improved, with reference both to sacred and devotional texts stressing poverty as a sacred value and to formal models from antique and High Renaissance art. The povero increasingly appeared as an idealized human archetype whose suffering and humility associated him directly with Christ. The article concludes by arguing that the symbolization of the poor as significant sacred actors in visual art was an aspect of their repression and exclusion in the social domain.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-169
Number of pages31
JournalArt History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2007


Dive into the research topics of 'Secular Charity, Sacred Poverty: Picturing the Poor in Renaissance Venice'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this