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Wallpaper and Religious Sculpture in Funchal, Madeira

In the Sacred Art Museum in Funchal, Madeira sits a processional model of Our Lady of the Rosary with the Infant Jesus, (Nossa Senhora do Rosario). The figures have long been housed in a wallpaper-lined cabinet. Although the cabinet and contents may initially appear to lie beyond the remit of an article about wallpaper, knowledge of other aspects of this item usefully informs our understanding of the significance of the use of wallpaper in this setting.

The previous owners of the Madonna, who donated it to the museum in 2015, have confirmed that it had been in use in their family for at least 200 years. The figures are thought to have been made on the Portuguese mainland, but they are dressed in garments made in Madeira. Beneath the exquisitely embroidered silk dresses the Madonna and Child have a form of underwear, and this too is embroidered. The needlework is in a vernacular style known to have been practised in Madeira during the nineteenth century. Over the figures is an arch of flowers made of feathers, silk, wax and other materials. The forebears of the donors made the arch, and were probably taught by the nuns of the Santa Clara Convent in Funchal, who were practitioners of the craftwork. The cabinet is known to have been made on Madeira during the nineteenth century, of a locally grown timber.

The back and sides of the interior of the cabinet are covered with wallpaper. The paper is much faded but may originally have been either ivory or possibly pale green. It has an all-over pattern of urns and stylised flowers, and is overprinted with sprigs of leaves, with pin printing to delineate the floral shapes. At its edges the paper has become brittle and is starting to disintegrate, exposing the bare wood beneath, which might suggest that the wallpaper was applied when the cabinet was first made.

Large religious mannequins of this type were found in the homes of the elite, their ownership providing opportunities for the family to practise religious observances in the privacy of their own home. Responsibility for caring for the figures fell to the women of the household, a role that was all the more important in a cultural context where women were excluded from active participation in religious hierarchies of power. When the figures were taken on religious processions, the splendour of the presentation of the Madonna ensured the contribution made by the women was made visible, and reinforced the status of the household within the community. That the original owners of this particular religious item chose to line the cabinet with wallpaper, that highly regarded feature of domestic sites, with all its cultural associations of cleanliness and control of space, serves to cast light on a striking example of the domestication of religious ritual.

My thanks to Elisa Vasconcelos, Head of Collections Management, Sacred Art Museum, Funchal, Madeira, for supplying such rich detail about this religious object.

Dianne Lawrence

Photos by the author


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