Salvator Mundi and
Dante (small revsions)
If I leave it until the eve, I have run out of steam to blog. A lack of exercise (confinement and very bad back) are not doing me any good.
At one time, I had over 3000 following my blog. Now it is just in double figures. Perhaps the title of this one will give it a boost.
I had been sitting on the news that the Louvre had published a book on the Leonardo Salvator Mundi, which made a very fleeting appearance in their bookshop before being hastily withdrawn. The book by Vincent Delieuvin included new technical analysis, and was intended to be ready when the Paris exhibition opened. As we know the painting was not in the show. The odd rogue copy escaped – and compounds the Louvre’s embarrassment about a national museum ‘promoting’ an artwork in private hands. Their book essentially validates what Margaret Dalivalle, Robert Simon and I wrote in our book for Oxford University Press, which the press have essentially buried for some unknown reason. Throughout they made a big mess of the book, particularly visually. Maybe our complaints account for their lack of interest in it. For me, never again with OUP. The press are outsourcing much of the editorial and production stages of books to disastrous effect.
See the accurate story about the SM in The Art Newspaper:
I had been keeping the story for the Oxford and Edinburgh literary festivals (I am banned from Hay, apparently). But we know what has happened to the festivals, sadly. The ownership is assumed to be Saudi Arabian – but I have seen no hard evidence to that effect.
Since this is an art-historical blog, I will say a bit about the book I am currently writing (for an as-yet unknown publisher). A this stage, It is called “Let there be Light”. Dante and the art of Divine Radiance, for the 700th anniversary in 2021 of the poet’s death. A rather long formal outline follows! I have chapter 2 in draft, specifically on Dante’s optics and the failure of his sight. This chapter is getting its first scrutiny by the exceptional young scholar of Italian literature, Maria Pavlova of Warwick University, who provided crucial support for the Mona Lisa book.
(Is there, I wonder, a chance of someone pinching the idea? If someone can do it properly according to my [undisclosed] deadline, they are welcome to try.
“Let there be Light”. Dante and the art of Divine Radiance
Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe are arguably the greatest European writers. They share not only untrammelled imaginative capacity, but also a huge base in learning. For all three (somewhat controversially in the case of Shakespeare) their learning embraced the sciences of their eras. The texts by the three authors also paint compelling visual images. Of this literary trinity, Dante enjoyed the most immediate succession in the visual arts.
Dante’s Vita Nuova (New Life) and Convivio (Banquet), in which he provides commentaries to sets of his own poems, use optical themes in the service of his love for Beatrice. The latter openly demonstrates a good grasp of Mediaeval optics in the visual dialogue between the poet and his beloved lady.
His Divina Commedia, written during the first and second decades of the 14th century while in exile from Florence, is without rival in its vision of hellish realities and heavenly glories that lie decisively beyond our accessible experiences. The poet is conducted successively on tours of Hell and Purgatory by the revered Roman poet Virgil, who is a pagan, and finally guided through the spiritual realms of Paradise by his beloved Beatrice, who had in effect been beatified by Dante after her early death in 1290. Hell, the first of the three books, is the most vivid, replete with strikingly varied repertoire of notable sins and picturesque sinners – in keeping with the cliché that the devil has the best tunes. Purgatory follows, a halfway house in which certain sinners who had not adequately repented and were not reconciled to the Church can nevertheless be purified for admission to heaven. It is also peopled by characters with memorable stories to tell. The sublime realm of heavenly Paradise is less varied verbally and visually as Dante and Beatrice ascend though spheres of spiritual wonder. The divine spirits inhabit upper zones radiant with glowing light and infused by sweet sounds. But there are limits to the number of ways in which pure goodness can be characterised. There is only so much variety that can be extracted from virtuous figures clad in white “nighties”.
A major running theme in the Divine Comedy, particularly in the Paradiso centres on Dante’s acts of seeing, conducted according to optical rule with respect to the kind of visual experiences that can be accomplished on earth, and the overwhelming of his earthly senses by heavenly light, which does not obey his rules of geometrical optics. This sets an obvious challenge for artists.
Unsurprisingly, Inferno has exercised a special fascination for commentators and illustrators. It has even inspired a popular video game. However, if we approach the visual impact of Dante from another direction – from that of the artists’ stock repertoire of devotional images of Biblical figures, virtuous saints, spiritual events and heavenly realms – emphasis switches to the Paradiso and its dazzling vision of the beauties of heaven. Unsurprisingly, there is a strong affinity between Dante’s vision of the divine realm and the portrayal of heaven in 14th-century Italian art, radiant with reflective gilding and golden rays of intense light. This tradition extends from Giotto to Fra Angelico in the 15thcentury. As had been the case in early Christian mosaics, real light reflected from gilded surfaces served to denote the radiant glories of the infinite heavens and the presence of specific rays of non-natural light. Most self-respecting miracles were accompanied by discernible radiance. The use of gold allowed divine light to be clearly differentiated from the standard illumination of objects within the space of the painting.
The problem comes with the switch to consistent naturalism of space, form and light during the 15th century. If a highlighted form within a picture uses the brightest tones of which paint is capable, how is divine light to be characterised? Internally consistent naturalism excludes recourse to actual gold. Alberti in On Painting (1435-6) insists that the painter should not use actual gold in depicting a golden object but exhibit high skill in using paint to imitate the lustre of gold. The notably ingenious solutions used by major artists to differentiate natural and divine light provide the focus of the latter part the book. The artists include Piero della Francesca, Bellini, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Bernini and Pietro da Cortona and Baciccio. Raphael emerges as the knowing hero of the enterprise.
The book opens with a broad look at the massive role of light in religious traditions, as expressed in the Bible by the separation light from darkness in the opening verses of Genesis (from which the title of the book comes). Light became the subject of intense scientific exploration in the Middle Ages in Islam and Christianity. The mathematical precision of direct light, reflection and refraction was taken as a decisive sign of the glorious perfection of God’s design. Optics combined rationality and rapture. Dante was deeply interested in this optical tradition, which lies behind a number of his accounts light in the Paradiso. The science of optics provides our earthly explanation of heavenly effects that lie ultimately outside our finite understanding. The final breakdown of the poet’s sense of sight in the face of the most sublime of heavenly visions is characterised in terms of Mediaeval optics.
A chapter will be devoted to how illustrators of the Paradiso grappled with divine light. The artists range from the glorious Giovanni di Paolo in the Renaissance to the visionary William Blake and the intense Gustav Doré in the 19th century.
The blinding of Dante sets the tone for the artists’ portrayal of unseeable brightness. When Saul falls from his horse in Michelangelo’s Vatican fresco, the hand with which he shields his eyes casts no shadow. Divine light does not obey earthly rule. Raphael shows himself in a series of paintings to be the greatest master of spiritual radiance. Correggio works his radiant magic in his dome illusions. When Baciccio evokes the glories of the name of Jesus in the huge vault of the Jesuit Church in Rome he does so with an ineffable light that explodes from the IHS logo though encircling clusters of glowing angels, whose pink bodies are bleached by the extreme luminosity of the light source.
Perhaps the largest and most conspicuous portrayals of the radiant heavens were the massive theatrical spectaculars that were staged to mark major religious festivals and great dynastic occasions. Typically the stage sets involved massive dome-like constructions within which the planets orbited. These visual and musical extravaganzas came to be known as Paradisi. There are scant visual records of them, but some written descriptions survive and allow us to understand how they related to the portrayal of heaven in paintings and played a major role in realising the Dantesque vision.
The Dantesque quality of these and other visions of divine light are not demonstrably in each instance attributable to a direct attempt to emulate Dante in the Paradiso, but they are part of the diaspora of Dante’s vision. For some artists, their knowledge of Dante is likely to have played a direct role, not least for Raphael and Michelangelo. There is also the impact of Dante’s sources, most notably St. Augustine. We also need to take into account the influence of Dante on how other writers summon up visionary experiences. And there were artists who gleaned the Dantesque vision from preceding artworks. Like the penetrative light that Dante describes in the Paradiso, his dazzling vision diffused on a ubiquitous basis, in a way that lies beyond the pedantic questions of direct influence.
Behind all this is an enormous and enduring question. If God exists in a realm ultimately beyond the limits of our understanding and the data of science, how can we ever truly know God? This question is as pressing and insoluble in today’s physics and cosmology as it was in the Middle Ages, when the doctrine of the “double truth” was developed to embrace the philosophy of Aristotle within the framework of Christian doctrine. The stakes behind by Dante’s vision of Paradise could not be more momentous.
April 16, 2020 @ 8:26 am
It is great to hear that you are focusing on Dante. I was at an exhibition about some of his eldest editions of La Divina Commedia at Montecitorio in Rome – there was a miniature Divine Comedy in a walnut! http://www.artemagazine.it/mostre/item/7838-montecitorio-la-fortuna-di-dante-manoscritti-libri-opere-d-arte-mostra-che-testimonia-l-umana-cura-per-l-eredita-mistica , Cheers, Deborah