Filippo Cegani’s plastic-sheened paintings interrogate the commodification of religious iconography

Using layers of paint and airbrush, the Milan-based artist aims to replicate the effect of plastic figurines.

13 December 2023

Three years ago the artist Filippo Cegani moved back to Milan. After nearly ten years spent living in the UK, upon returning to Italy he found himself faced with complex conversations about Christianity, a topic he hadn’t grappled with since his youth. Encountering such topics after time spent away from his home country, Filippo found himself shocked by what the distance had made him realise. “I was surprised to discover how the romanticism and the horror of the stories of the bible were not fully absorbed by me throughout my life,” he says. “I feel like I’ve been told these stories so many times, yet I never gave them the space they truly deserved in my thoughts.”

Such conversations instigated a period of Filippo reevaluating his morality, which resulted in him “clashing” with the many stories that had formed his values. Filippo perceived a disconnect between the horrors and pain often embedded within stories in the bible, and how widely they are accepted and disseminated. This, Filippo expands, was exacerbated by the religious iconography that fills Milan’s streets and homes and overflows from shops – in the main, female deities crying, seemingly consumed by pain. These figures are ubiquitous across Italy, Filippo perceives to the point of commodification. “Just as I heard the stories so many times but never absorbed the value, I think that seeing religious statues constantly kind of detaches us from the value of these images.”


Filippo Cegani: Grazie (Copyright © Filippo Cegani, 2023)

It was this experience that inspired Filippo’s series Grazie. A title of double meanings, it refers to the idea of sacrifice-free graces and gifts from God, something Filippo sees “as a rarity both in religion as well as daily life”, as well as referring to the informal Italian ‘thanks’. Throughout the series Filippo creates hyper-real, intensely close-up paintings of classical religious figures and imagery, attempting to demonstrate “the binary relationship between pain and ecstasy in religious iconography”. The close-up focus of each face depicted removes the context of each painting, making it hard to decipher whether the expression and tears are one of sadness, or overwhelming joy.

Each one of the paintings throughout Grazie has a heightened sheen, with highlights used meticulously to give an unearthly glow. This effect, Filippo explains, is to give the impression of plastic – directly referencing the plastic figurines he encounters every day across Milan. This creates “an extra layer of distance between the viewer and the subject depicted”, as the artist believes such figurines have created oversaturation in everyday life. To create the effect Filippo works in layers of brush and airbrush until a smoothness is achieved, with no brush strokes visible “so that the painting itself wouldn’t even seem painted in the first place,” he says.

Reflecting on the project, Filippo hopes that people don’t view it as a mockery or ridicule of religion, or the plight of women’s suffering. Simply, the series has proved a way for Filippo to work through his own personal feelings towards Christianity and how it has been visualised, repurposed and sold on a mass scale. “I hope it is seen as a personal reflection made physical,” ends Filippo. “In a way, it is my own exorcism through work.”

GalleryFilippo Cegani: Grazie (Copyright © Filippo Cegani, 2023)

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Filippo Cegani: Grazie (Copyright © Filippo Cegani, 2023)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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