The Turning Point – Celebrating Mercy in The Divine Comedy and Dante’s 700th Anniversary
Earlier this year I created a work to enter into an exhibition specifically to celebrate Dante Alighieri’s 700th Anniversary which may fall on 13th or 14th September (today or yesterday). The exhibition opened at The Dante Society in London with many of the artists in Italy, America and China participating in the event online. There is also an online version of the exhibition which you may visit virtually. I am writing this to offer some background information to the thinking behind the painting and to commemorate the great Dante Alighieri 700 years after he met with the eternal.
The frontispiece to Lorenzo de Medici’s folio of the poetic works of Dante and Petrarch features a painting of a shipwrecked man being offered a branch of a laurel bush, the laurel being emblematic of poets. When life throws us adrift with no anchor, when our worlds are lost and torn, poetry and song can be a lifesaver: a branch that can pull us to shore, where the words of the long departed can reach out to us and console, reassure us that we are not alone in being alone.
Visiting Florence in 2019 was the fulfilment of a lifetime ambition. Among my earliest memories of television is a documentary on St. Francis and Florentine artists featured heavily. Readers of my biography of Frances Darlington will know that a certain statue of St. Francis also figured strongly in my early life as did the name of ‘Uncle Dante’. To family and familiars Frances was ‘Dickie’, her sister, (my great grandmother) was ‘Dot’ and her brother was ‘Dante’, a nickname coined after his childhood affection for his elder cousin Beatrice! I never met any of them, but my grandmother was full of stories. I was so little that when my mother called me to the television to see something about St. Francis (who was the main attraction) when she spoke of Florence I fully expected to see a character from The Magic Roundabout! The memory is particularly vivid as the television broke down in the middle of the programme – so the moment was bookmarked in my memory by a loud bang.
On my return from Florence, determined to stay there in spirit for as long as I could I decided to read The Divine Comedy. Although I had read sections of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow translation, I confess that I found the text rather wearisome so I invested in a new copy of The Divine Comedy translated by Robin Kirkpatrick and set about reading one or two cantos a night. The contemporary language opened up the text in a way impossible with the Longfellow. The notes were rich and deep and I decided to read the thing properly, cross-referencing with the notes throughout and with other books about Florence that I had to hand.
As Covid-19 began to strangle family life and cut me off even further from those that I loved, I once again looked to the poetic rock that is Dante. Towards the end of March 2020 my father collapsed, was taken away in an ambulance never to be seen again (he was diagnosed with Covid-19 after his admission into hospital and died two weeks later – we were unable to visit). Then Dante (and his translator Robin Kirkpatrick) became those crucial poets on the shore proffering a laurel branch as I was whipped about in the treacherous waters of loss. As next of kin (my parents are divorced) I was the main point of contact with the Intensive Care Unit and lived an horrific two weeks as a remote witness to my father’s gradual decline – passing on news to all other family members and friends. Although the nurses kept me afloat with news of his improvement, increasingly better oxygen levels etc – in the early days of the pandemic, beds were needed for younger people and doctors decided it was time to end his life by removing life support. The nurses seemed as upset as I was – my father was a young 79. In the daytime I drew from Botticelli and in the night I read Dante clinging onto Florence and the Divine light that inspired its deepest beauty with all my might.
In 2005 I had bought the Longfellow translation of The Divine Comedy, primarily for the breath-taking illustrations by Gustave Doré which are surely the only works to have come close to depicting the magnitude of the imagery.
Although rich in detail and the compassion that is the life blood of the text, the only thing they lack is the colour – jewel like colours and vivid light, vision is so crucial to Dante’s descriptive verse. Dante’s patron saint was St. Lucy (cf Inferno 2) who is the patron saint of eye sight, and this link with sight and blindness is an integral theme to the book. Therefore I used geometry to evoke an approximation of a cross-section of an eye, to convey lenses and the reflective mechanisms of vision and sight and it pivoting on a fixed point.
‘And those happy souls
became like spheres revolving around fixed points,
flaming in spinning turns as comets do.’
Eyes reveal the soul, it is with a look of the eye that Beatrice can speak to Dante, through her eyes that Dante regains his sight and recognises the truth of the Divine, cf Paradiso 26.
‘The lady who now leads you through this god-
like realm has, in the glance she gives to you,
The power that lay in Ananias’ hand.’
(By laying his hands upon St. Paul’s eyes, Ananias cures him of blindness – Acts of the Apostles 9:17-18)
So, too, the eyes of Beatrice shone-
Their ray would reach a thousand miles or more –
Routing the maculae that tainted mine.
I saw now better than I had before.
Earlier in The Purgatorio Beatrice’s eyes resonate the divine light from those of the Gryphon,
…they brought me to the Gryphon’s breast,
where, turned towards us, Beatrice stood.
‘Make sure,’ they said, ‘you do not spare your eyes.
We’ve placed you here before these emeralds,
from which Love aimed his arrows at you at once.’
A thousand longings, fiercer than flame,
wrestled my eyes to her eyes, shining back,
fixed upon the Gryphon, never wavering.
No differently from sun in mirror glass,
the twyform beast shone rays into her eyes,
displaying one and then the other kind.
Apart from the vivid visual descriptions, the way we see things, the way we interpret what we see, seems incredibly important, particularly in The Inferno. There is a lack of condemnation in the presence of a non-judgemental Dante who looks on as a quiet wondering and sometimes horrified observer. Although the actual author Dante has decided who is in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, placing judgement outside the text, compassion is quite literally the life-blood of The Divine Comedy and it is the pity and concern of Dante, who is the reader’s eyes, that is dominant. This perhaps suggests that the compassionate vision in Dante, his own love of his fellow man, allows him to progress to see the love that is in heaven.
Having studied English literature of the period and that which followed it, I found Dante’s imagery huge – for it is out of this world and approaches the cinematic visions of science fiction. While in contemporary medieval English texts knights and mysterious women, dragons and green men lurked in strange and fantastic forests, Italian readers had these vast cinematic celestial vistas – closer to space-scapes than landscapes.
The vast sums of this universe, of all existence, complex geometry, time and historical experience are summed up in a single moment in the encounter of God, to a single simple point or truth.
Within its depths, this light I saw, contained
bound up and gathered in a single book,
the leaves that scatter through the universe-
beings and accidents and modes of life,
as blown all together in a way
that what I say is just a simple light.
This knotting up of universal form
I saw, I’m sure of that. For now I feel
in saying this, a gift of greater joy.
One single point in trauma is far more,
for me, than those millennia since sail
made Neptune marvel under Argos shade.
The passage that primarily inspired my painting this year is from Purgatorio 32 – a scene famously illustrated by William Blake. I omitted the chariot for poetic reasons, to simplify the image to the cruciform arm of the chariot mentioned in the text and concentrate on the crucial aspect of redemption that this scene signifies.
And then they circled round a leafless tree.
Its every branch was stripped of greenery.
The crested peak which broadens out the more
The more it rises, would, for height, inspire
Wonder in the Hindus in their own great woods.
‘Blessed are you Gryphon. With your beak
You did not spoil this wood, so sweet to taste.
For after tasting, bellies writhe, all sick.’
Around this might tree they made this cry.
And then the creature, two formed in its birth:
‘In this way, all that’s true and just is saved.’
Then, turned towards the pole he’d drawn. Before,
Towards the foot of that long-widowed sprig,
he tugged it and then left it bound to that.
Compare: in spring the great light of the sun
Cascades on earthly trees conjoined with that
which shines out following the astral Carp.
These trees then swell. The colour is renewed,
In each and all, before the sun moves on
To yoke its horse to some other star.
So did this tree, whose boughs had hung bereft,
Take on new strength, in colour opening
To more than violet and to less than rose.
(Purgatorio 32: 37-60)
Colour also strongly signifies Mercy – in the Bible and in the Divine Comedy so the inclusion of the rainbow as the vast limitless mercy of God was inevitable. Envisioning astrolabes and the circling three spheres representing The Trinity and the mercy therein I saw the pivotal point at their centre as the moment the cross touches the barren tree, but it is also a pearl, referencing the pearl of women and the Kingdom of Heaven – see Matthew as cited below.
Within the being – lucid, bright and deep-
of that high brilliance there appeared to me
three circling spheres, three-coloured, one in span.
and one, it seemed was mirrored by the next
twin rainbows, arc to arc. The third seemed fire,
and breathed to first and second equally.
cf Matthew 13:45-6
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls,46 who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.
Verdi Te Deum from Florence, 1996: