Painting in the age of Dante: Visions of the Afterlife in Trecento Italian Painting (1) – by Sandra Cardarelli

The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death (1265-1321), and the forthcoming exhibition organized by the Uffizi Gallery of Florence ”Dante: La Visione dell’Arte” that will be housed in the Musei di San Domenico in Forlì from 12 March to 4 July 2021,  offers us the opportunity to look at the cultural environment that constituted the backdrop to the work of the most iconic Italian poet of all time, and to reflect on how contemporary theological debate and artistic development influenced Dante’s most renowned work, the Divina Commedia, and vice versa. 

The afterlife as the place of abode of the souls of the dead and as the prelude to eternal life after the death of the body, has been a concern of all cultures in all periods of time. Since the 5th century, the iconography of the afterlife was deeply influenced by mythological Greek tales, and in the course of the 14th century, by Dante’s Divina Commedia. From literature to painting, the journey to the afterlife has inspired generations of artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, and theologians. In this first blog contribution we will look at some specific examples of imagery of the Last Judgement that were produced at the time when Dante was writing his Commedia, but we shall also see how Dante himself was influenced by contemporary artists and other prominent figures (Fig. 1). 

Fig. 1) Dante’s House. House on the site of Dante’s birthplace, now the site of Dante’s House Museum, Florence. 

The Last Judgement, that is the destiny of humanity after the end of the world, and the distribution of eternal reward or punishment presided over by Christ, is described in the Old Testament in the Book of Daniel (VII, 13) and in the New Testament in the Synoptic Apocalypse: Matthew (25, 31-46) Mark (13, 24-37) and Luke (21, 25-38). One of the most cogent issues that became the centre of theological debate in the 12th century was the condition of those who died in the grace of God but who were not fully purified. However, it was only with the Council of Lyon of 1274 that Purgatory was sanctioned as doctrine of the Catholic Church. In spite of formal recognition by the church, this fundamental dogma became widely known only after the Jubilee of 1300, and therefore only a few years before Dante undertook the writing of the Divina Commedia, c. 1308. Before then, the iconography of Purgatory was outlined in the Golden Legend, a compilation of hagiographic accounts of the lives of saints that was written by Jacopo da Varazze, Archbishop of Genoa, c. 1260. This highly influential volume was the reference text for generations of artists who sought to portray saintly figures by interpreting the descriptions of the Dominican preacher and theologian. This is how the Golden Legend described Purgatory: 

“In a vision he saw the King of Kings surrounded by all the angels. Then the Virgin of Virgins came forward…the man in camel skin was John the Baptist…All these people had come before the King to thank him for the honour done them by mortals on this day, and to pray for the whole world. Then the angel led the warden to another place and showed him people of both sexes, some reclining on golden beds, others at tables enjoying delicious viands, still others naked and needy, begging for help. This place, the angel said, was Purgatory.”

It was in this cultural climate that Dante wrote the Divina Commedia and gave verbal form to the theological concept of Purgatory discussed in Lyon. Dante’s poem records his epic journey from the darkness of Hell, through Purgatory to finally reach the divine light of Paradise, and the vision of God. The representation of the afterlife in art continued to portray the binary vision of good and bad, sin and virtue, Hell and Paradise, with the vision of Purgatory appearing mostly in illuminated manuscript books until the 15th century (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2) Domenico di Michelino, Dante and his poem, 1465, Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore. The poet is represented between the mountain of Purgatory and the city of Florence. 

In art, passage to the afterlife went through a slow process of change, from the byzantine iconographic tradition to large-scale fresco images. One crucial element in representations of the Last Judgement was Christ depicted as a judge in a Mandorla of light, holding the triumphal Cross and accompanied by the apostles and angels. This “template” representation went through a slow process of characterization whereby the position and form of Christ and the Cross changed shape, position, and importance within the image. 

One of the few surviving 13th century panel paintings with this theme is the Last Judgement painted by the Sienese artist Guido da Siena c. 1280 and now housed in the Museo Archeologico e d’Arte della Maremma in Grosseto. The panel will be part of the Dante exhibition in Forlì this Spring. (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3) Guido da Siena, Last Judgement, tempera and gold leaf on panel, c. 1280, Museo Archeologico e d’Arte Sacra della Maremma, Grosseto.

This image of the suffering Christ on the Cross portrayed with the instruments of Passion—the Arma Christi—is a clear reference to the mystery of Redemption through the example of Christ’s life on earth. The panel shows a Franciscan friar leading a group of the saved in the two separate episodes at the right of Christ, clearly indicating a hierarchy of the saved and providing strong evidence that the Franciscans were likely involved in the patronage of this painting. The inscription that runs across the two angels at the bottom of the Cross recites: “SURGITE MORTUI, VENITE AD IUDICIUM” (Arise ye dead, and come to judgement), a popular shortened admonition originally attributed to St Jerome, that doesn’t follow the usual inscription from Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 25, 34-41): “VENITE BENEDICTI PATRIS MEI POSSIDETE REGNUM […] DISCEDITE MALEDICTI IN IGNEM AETERNUM […] (Come you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom I prepared for you […] Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire […]” (Fig. 4). 

Fig. 4) Guido da Siena, Last Judgement, detail.

The pictorial space under the Cross is divided into four parts. At the bottom right of Christ, dead bodies arise from their coffins, while the group of the saved is led by a Franciscan friar. A lay man and woman followed by a bishop and another friar can be recognised, as they walk behind the leading friar. The group features members of both the religious and lay realms of the community. In the space at the top another group of people are climbing the stairs to be admitted to the presence of Christ, and they are also led by a Franciscan friar, possibly St Francis himself. They are welcomed by St Peter, who stands at the entrance of the kingdom of Heaven. The damned are represented rising from their graves at the left of Christ. Below, as the damned fearfully approach the entrance of Hell, they witness the destiny of those ahead of them, who are consumed by flames and devoured by wild beasts. 

The Franciscans had a long-standing history in Grosseto, as according to records the Order had founded a monastery in the city c. 1220, therefore before the death of St Francis, the founder of the Order, in 1226. The friars’ vision of St Francis as the Alter Christus, and thus as the prime example of redemption through the imitation of Christ’s life, would have informed contemporary imagery commissioned by the friars and their supporters, and the ideals of Franciscan spiritual life were made available to the masses of illiterate people thanks to specific iconographic programmes. The Grosseto panel would have absolved this didactic function and at the same time would have presented the Franciscan friars as those who were able to show the way to salvation.

Concern with the afterlife was not exclusive to specific social or religious groups but also of individual members of the community. In c. 1303 Giotto, the most influential artist of the time, begun the fresco decoration of the Scrovegni chapel (also known as the Arena chapel) in Padua (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5) Giotto, Enrico Scrovegni offers the model of the chapel to the Virgin and other female saints, fresco, c. 1303-5, Scrovegni chapel, Padua.

This cycle proved to have a connection with Dante. Enrico Scrovegni, the patron, was the son of Reginaldo, a member of the Paduan nobility that Dante placed in the inner seventh circle of Hell as the wicked usurer: 

“A Paduan am I with these Florentines;
  Full many a time they thunder in mine ears,
  Exclaiming, ‘Come the sovereign cavalier,

  He who shall bring the satchel with three goats;
  Then twisted he his mouth, and forth he thrust
  His tongue, like to an ox that licks its nose.” (Inf. XVII, 70-75)

Undoubtedly, as a moneylender himself, Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel for the salvation of his soul as well as for the redemption of his father’s sins. The image of Enrico bent on his knee, portrayed in the act of offering the newly built chapel to the Virgin Mary functioned as a stark reminder of the attitude to the afterlife in 14th century Italy. At the Last Judgment Scrovegni is depicted to the right of Christ, among the blessed (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6) Giotto, Last Judgement, fresco, c. 1303-5, Scrovegni chapel, Padua.

Christ is represented at the centre, in the traditional Mandorla, surrounded by the Fathers of the church and hosts of angels. Lucifer, enthroned on a dragon, overlooks the punishment of the damned on the left. The torment that is administered to them is described in detail, as a powerful admonition for the viewers.

Dante’s admiration for Giotto emerges clearly in the 11th chant of the Purgatory, when the poet meets Oderisi da Gubbio, a painter and illuminator from Umbria, who had died in Rome in 1299. In his humble words, Oderisi, who is in the circle of vainglory and pride, talks about the vanity of our achievements on earth, which are never long-lasting, as our talents are surpassed by others, in the same way as Giotto surpassed Cimabue (c. 1240-1302). Cimabue was the first artist to break from the byzantine style, and was considered one of the greatest artists of his time:

“In painting Cimabue thought he held

the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim —

the former only keeps a shadowed fame.” (Purg. XI, 103-08)

In the course of the centuries many images of Dante have been painted to celebrate him as one of Florence’s most important poets. One of the earliest and most famous images of Dante is part of the Last Judgement cycle that decorates the chapel of the Podestà in the Bargello palace in Florence (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7) School of Giotto, Portrait of Dante Alighieri?, fresco, c. 1321?, Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, also known as the Magdalen Chapel, Florence. 

An article authored by E.H. Gombrich that appeared in The Burlington Magazine in 1979 challenged the attribution of the identity of the figure that is represented in the lower right section of Paradise in the chapel as the portrait of Dante. Gombrich’s scepticism was based on the knowledge that Dante, at the time when the frescoes were probably devised and completed (c. 1321), had been exiled from Florence for two decades. This was the time of the struggle between Guelphs and Ghibellines, and at the turn of the Trecento there was fierce fighting between the Neri and Bianchi factions of the Guelphs represented in Florence by the Donati and Cerchi families respectively. Although both factions were supporters of the Papacy, the Bianchi were in favour of the Florentine Signoria and advocated stronger autonomy from the Pope, while the financial and economic interests of the Neri, comprised of Florence’s wealthiest families, tied them to the Pope and granted him de facto control over the internal affairs of the city. These internal struggles ended with the supremacy of the Neri, and the Bianchi started to be exiled from Florence in 1302. Dante, an exponent of the Bianchi, was exiled in March of that year, and never returned to Florence. He moved around Italian courts until his death in Ravenna on 14 September 1321. This is not the place to argue about the likeness of Dante’s portrait in the Bargello, as the date of completion of this image is also still the object of study, but it is important to remember that this profile image with the prominent nose and the typical Florentine hat was replicated in many later representations of the poet by different artists. We can however take this opportunity to mention Dante’s own view of his exile, when in his Divina Commedia, in Paradise, he meets his ancestor Cacciaguida who forecasts his ban from Florence:

“You shall leave everything you love most dearly: 

this is the arrow that the bow of exile

shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste

of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know

how hard a path it is for one who goes

descending and ascending others’ stairs.” (Par. XVII, 55-60)

The Bargello building was originally used to house the Capitano del Popolo of Florence, and in 1261 it became the seat of the Podestà, the highest civic official of the city, and the administrator of civil and criminal justice (Fig. 8).

Fig. 8) Bargello, now a National Museum, but formerly the Palazzo del Popolo (1255-1308) and the Court of Lords (1316-1346).

The fresco cycle of the Last Judgment in the chapel of the Podestà was attributed to the circle of Giotto, and some scholars envisaged that the hand of the master himself might have been at work in parts of the fresco that is now largely lost or damaged. In spite of the lack of relevant documentary evidence, the surviving inscription in the frescoes suggests that at least parts of the decoration of the chapel might have been commissioned by Fidesmino da Varano, Podestà of Florence at the time of his tenure between 1331-1337. 

The chapel, also known as the Magdalen Chapel, because of the images from the saint’s life on the side wall, would have been the location where convicts condemned for the most serious offences received their last rites by the hands of members of the confraternity of S. Maria di Croce al Tempio before their execution. The brethren brought spiritual comfort to the condemned, heard their last confession and administered their last communion. Giorgio Vasari recalled in his Lives of the artists, that Giotto had painted the image of the commune in the guise of a seated judge holding a scale as a symbol of his impartial decisions in the Great Hall of the Palazzo, the place where the accused stood to be judged. The frescoes in the chapel would therefore have presented the condemned with a bleak outlook of the fate of their souls in the afterlife (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà. 

The vision of Hell occupies the entrance wall of the chapel, while Paradise is shown on the East wall, opposite the entrance, contrary to other traditional representations of Hell and Paradise that flank the left and right sides of the Last Judgement (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, Paradise.

The cycle is badly damaged, and in spite of the restauration of 2005, large parts of it are unfortunately lost, and so it is not clear whether the figure of the Christ Judge was depicted above the representation of Hell, although the large portion of wall above the figure of Lucifer lets us assume that this might be the case. In the image of Hell, the central figure of Lucifer holding the damned with both hands surrounded by those condemned to the abyss of eternal damnation is distinctively recognisable (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11) Bargello, Chapel of the Podestà, Hell.

The lateral figures are too damaged to make a hypothetical reconstruction of the missing parts, but it is likely that these were fashioned similarly to the Last Judgement painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco (c.1336-41) on the southern wall of the Camposanto of Pisa, a fresco cycle that we shall examine in greater detail in the second part of the blog (Fig. 12). 

Fig. 12) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Hell, detail of the Last Judgement, c. 1336-41. Pisa, Camposanto. 

In their own peculiar forms and iconographies, the panel painting by Guido da Siena, the fresco cycle in the Scrovegni chapel, and the cycle in the chapel of the Podestà at the Bargello, all show different ways in which the narrative of the afterlife was fashioned and reflected contemporary views on the consequences of virtuous and sinful behaviour. The iconography of the Guido da Siena panel suggests that this was likely the product of the Franciscan mentality, but individual patrons, such as Enrico Scrovegni, and civic governments, such as that of Florence, were all active agents in the dissemination of the redemptive imagery of the Last Judgement. 

Further Reading:

Bent, George, Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press), 2017.

Cardarelli, Sandra, “St Francis in Southern Tuscany” in The world of St Francis of Assisi, ed. by Brad Franco and Beth Mulvaney (Siena, 2017), pp. 83-92.

Elliott, Janice, “The Judgement of the Commune: The Frescoes of the Magdalen Chapel in Florence”, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 61/4 (1998), pp. 509-519.

Jacobus, Laura, Giotto and the Arena Chapel: Art, Architecture and Experience (London/ Turnhout, Harvey Miller Publisher), 2008 (revised edition in preparation).

On Dante online:

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