Theses Doctoral

Painted Organ Shutters in Renaissance Italy

D'Addio, Sophia

This dissertation offers the only comprehensive, in-depth study of early modern Italian organ shutters to date. Once a widespread element of church decoration across northern Italy, painted organ shutters are the only large-scale paintings for the sacred sphere that were conceived in direct dialogue with musical practice. Moreover, through the unfolding of liturgical ritual, the actual music performed on the organ would have enlivened the images that grace the shutters in various ways. Predominantly executed in oil on canvas, these monumental figural paintings of sacred subjects were mounted back-to-back using a shared wooden support and attached to the organ case with a hinging mechanism. When closed, they shielded the pipes, and the images on their exterior side marked the presence of the instrument in its latent state; when open, their interior images provided a visual accompaniment to the sacred music performed during liturgical celebrations. Approximately eighty percent of surviving organ shutters have been removed from their original installation and reformatted as wall paintings, thus depriving them of their original musico-liturgical context and dissociating them from their role as participants in the multisensory experience of the mass.

Over 150 sets of shutters are extant, including examples by the illustrious hands of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, Cosmè Tura, Parmigianino, Pordenone, Romanino, Moretto, Tintoretto, and Veronese, among others. This impressive body of works has nonetheless received remarkably little scholarly attention. Although individual sets of shutters do appear occasionally in the existing literature, they are generally discussed in largely stylistic or iconographic terms; only rarely have scholars engaged with questions regarding the original format and function of these objects, both of which are fundamental to understanding how the images were envisioned and experienced. This dissertation constitutes the first full-length study to address these oft-overlooked factors, thereby introducing new interpretive possibilities.

The first chapter is dedicated to the most prevalent subject across the genre, the Annunciation, which engages eloquently with the spatial divide between the shutter paintings and is itself imbued with an aural dimension. The second chapter investigates the relationship between the exterior and interior sides of the shutters, and how the images that adorn them express and embody notions of passage, enlivenment, and revelation. The third chapter examines subjects with musical content, whether explicit or more subtly implied. An epilogue explores the afterlives of a selection of these objects following their removal from their initial installation. A chronologically organized checklist of all extant shutter paintings within the established temporal and geographical parameters of the project concludes the dissertation.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Cole, Michael
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 12, 2020