The Art Insider: April '17

This image: Photographs of Cambridge by Thomas Endlein are on sale at the Lawson Gallery

Ruthie Collins gives you the lowdown on arty happenings around Cambridge in April

It’s extraordinary what you see when you look for the miraculous. Get inspired by the new exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Madonnas and Miracles, and take some time out to go searching for miracles this month – you’ll be surprised at what comes up. 

Displaying more than 100 important works on loan from around Europe, plus almost 50 objects from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s collection, Madonnas and Miracles explores religion in the Italian Renaissance home. Devotion, worship and prayer were at the heart of family life in a domestic world imbued with spiritual meaning.

Artists and makers played a vital role in celebrating the divine in everyday life – through dolls, amulets, sculptures, illustrated books and paintings. It’s hard not to be stirred by the likes of Botticelli’s Virgin and Child with an Angel, which you can see at the exhibition. Any mother will know the sense of incredible love between a mother and her child (dads too!) – it’s something that does come close to the divine. Yet, it’s hard to view the Madonnas on show without seeing how they’ve been vigorously desexualised, sanitised and polished. They glow with a perfectionist innocence that many modern-day mothers may find alien – while also seeing an ideal that is still impossibly familiar. Revering family life and devotion is something to be celebrated, but on our own terms. 

It’s extraordinary, though, to uncover the strength that is attributed to the Virgin Mary in Renaissance Italy, and her ability to bestow miracles. Renaissance Italy witnessed an ‘explosion of interest’ in miracles according to Madonnas and Miracles, a book edited by Maya Corry, Deborah Howard and Mary Laven. New cults devoted to the Madonna or Christ were everywhere in Italy. You can see entire ‘scenes of miracles’ in the exhibition – something we could all do with seeing that little bit more recently – and they’re a throwback to a time when worship and prayer was closely associated with health. I’m sure you will adore seeing a wooden baby Jesus doll (right) at the exhibition (which survived an earthquake last October) from the Franciscan nunnery of the Poor Clares of Santa Chiara in Italy – hailed by many as a miracle.

While searching for the miraculous in art, from rainbows to iridescent light, this month, I’ve found inspiration from Cambridge-based light artist Chris Wood, whose work invokes a sense of wonder. 

“My main source of inspiration is simply the phenomenon of light. My work is a continual exploration of light and it never fails to surprise me,” says Chris, whose influences include the wonderful Olafur Eliasson. Light, she says, is an “unbelievable magical phenomena.”

Chris is represented here in Cambridge by Byard Art, so watch out for her installations, which have been commissioned and exhibited by the likes of Harrods, Fendi fashion house and The Wellcome Trust. Her installation, Seeds, is hanging in the reception of Rosie Maternity Hospital, plus more of her work can be spotted in various places around the city, including the side of the Future Business Centre and Hotel Felix. 

Light, which we often take for granted, is transformed into awe-inspiring installations and creative encounters that shine – everyday miracles, indeed. 

Long associated with divine intervention and miracles, rainbows which arc over Cambridge can be spotted in the photography of Thomas Endlein, whose work is on sale at the Lawson Gallery on King’s Parade. Endlein, who once won the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year award, was inspired by Cambridge while studying in the city for a PhD. His photographic work on the colleges in Cambridge earned him an Associateship with The Royal Photographic Society – you can check out more of his awe-inspring shots of the city on his website endlein.org. 

Or, pop into Cambridge Contemporary Crafts to enjoy a rainbow of lace butterflies by Vikki Lafford Garside – these sumptuous beauties are full of all the miracles of springtime.  


"Awe-inspiring installations and creative encounters"


The Secret Museum, by Molly Oldfield, which you can buy in Cambridge Waterstones, tells us all about unusual archived works throughout the world, such as (drum roll) Nabokov’s very own blue butterfly genitalia cabinet. Yes, novelist Vladimir Nabokov collected the willies of blue butterflies and kept them in tiny glass vials, which are stored in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Whether that counts as a miracle or not, I’ll leave to you all to decide! But when sifting through life’s day-to-day worries – from climate change or world politics to a sick relative – an appreciation of devotion in its many forms, which anchors us to what we love, can feel like it’s nothing short of miraculous. 

Pulitzer Prize-winning US poet Mary Oliver puts it beautifully in the poem, I Worried, which is taped to the toilet door in Satyam Yoga’s Wellbeing Centre (on Hawthorn Way). “Finally, I saw that the worrying had come to nothing. / And gave it up. And took my old body / and went out into the morning, / and sang.” Next time you think it’s tempting to hide away and howl into that pillow – try looking for miracles, instead. Here’s to a miraculous April, all.