Painting in the age of Dante: Visions of the Afterlife in Trecento Italian Painting (2) – by Sandra Cardarelli

In this second part of the blog we are looking at the Last Judgement in the Camposanto of Pisa, and we shall see that this cycle became a widely recognised visual narrative in the representation of the afterlife that was replicated elsewhere, including, for example, the Strozzi chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella, the headquarters of the Dominican Order in Florence. While the Camposanto frescoes draw their ethos from the Dominican attitude to the afterlife, they also evoke a more popular tradition later associated with the stories written by Boccaccio (1313-1375) in his Decameron, where the timor mortis contrasts with the attachment to life and its pleasures. 

The Camposanto was the old cemetery of Pisa and was allegedly built on sacred soil transported to the city from the Holy Land after the Third Crusade. The walls of this monumental building are decorated with fresco images that required new pictorial conventions to convey the patrons’ views of the divine, the macabre and the unknown (Figs. 1-2). 

Fig. 1) Pisa, Camposanto, exterior.
Fig. 2) Pisa, Camposanto, interior.

The fresco cycle of the Camposanto comprises of large-size scenes that invite the viewers to reflect and contemplate on the effects of sinful and virtuous behaviours. The illusionism created by the height of the pictorial space and the hierarchical scale of the figures contribute to the construction of a compelling narrative of death that ranges from comic to macabre, as in the Triumph of Death, painted by Buffalmacco c. 1336. The monumental narrative does not overshadow the individual scenes within the image, such as the group of richly dressed young men and courtesans conversing in a lush garden, while angels and demons fight for the souls of the dead (Fig. 3). 

Fig. 3) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Triumph of Death, fresco, detail, c. 1336-41, Pisa, Camposanto. 

Nearby, Buffalmacco’s vision of the Inferno in the Last Judgement shows the damned divided in different circles, each one of them corresponding to the punishment of a sin according to the law of the “contrappasso” (from the Medieval Latin ‘contrapassus’, lit. “suffer the opposite”) (Figs. 4). This was based on the biblical concept of retribution that is indicated by the correspondence of the punishment to the crime, and therefore in inflicting the offender with the same injury he caused to the offended party. Dante talks about this in the 28th chant of Hell when the poet meets Bertran De Born, one of the greatest poets of medieval Occitan, who is held accountable by Dante for his role in the plotting of Prince Henry against his father King Henry II at the English court:

“Because I parted persons so united,
  Parted do I now bear my brain, alas!
  From its beginning, which is in this trunk.
 Thus is observed in me the counterpoise.” (Inf. XXVIII, 139-142).

Fig. 4) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Hell, detail from the Last Judgement, fresco, Pisa, Camposanto. 

The representation of the Last Judgement and Hell in the Camposanto of Pisa is part of a larger cycle that included the Crucifixion (by Francesco Traini, c. 1330), the Resurrection, the Incredulity of St Thomas, and the Ascension of Christ, that along with the image of the Triumph of Death (Fig. 5) and the Thebaid, a moralizing painting with the Stories of the Holy Fathers, were painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco around 1336-1341 (Fig. 6). The scope of these scenes is evident: the devotee was confronted with the suffering and resurrection of Christ, before seeing the transient nature of life on earth and the grim prospect of eternal damnation, followed by the redemptive life of the friars in the desert. The textual sources of these images were likely suggested by Dominican friars, whose preaching was popular in Pisa at the time. These were based on the writings of the Dominican preacher Domenico Cavalca (c. 1270-1342), and Fra Giordano da Pisa (c.1260-1311), who was also a Dominican theologian who preached in the convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and was heavily influenced by Dante’s writings. In fact, in their original condition, the frescoes were completed by scrolls with moralizing inscriptions that are now lost, but that came to us thanks to a 19th century transcription:

“Wise soul, if you aim well / 

the future time of divine judgement / 

and the good ones who are elected to Paradise / 

and the offenders damned to eternal torture. 

Your life in the world will be perfect / 

following the virtue, and leaving the vice /

and renouncing everything beloved / 

you will meet with others in heaven who are chosen by God”

Fig. 5) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Triumph of Death, fresco, c. 1336-41,  Pisa, Camposanto.
Fig. 6) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Stories of the Holy Fathers, fresco, Pisa, Camposanto.

In the Last Judgement, Buffalmacco creates a fascinating iconography: at the top Christ and the Virgin are enclosed in colourful Mandorle of divine light and are surrounded by the Apostles (Fig. 7). Christ is not represented as the Judge, but as Christ in Glory, as we have seen in the Bargello chapel in Florence. Below, at the centre, hosts of angels play the trumpets of the Last Judgement, while the Archangel Michael, armed with a sword, separates the worthy from the damned, offering a variation of the apocryphal New Testament according to which Michael was the protector of souls after death and battled the devils over their possession. While saints with golden halos and the blessed pray at the right of Christ, the damned are at his left, where some angels push them towards the mouth of Hell. Sharp hooks that harpoon some of the crowd and pull them towards the door that leads to the circles of Hell, emerge from the rocks (Fig. 8). 

Fig. 7) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Last Judgement, Pisa, Camposanto.
Fig. 8) Buonamico Buffalmacco, Last Judgement, detail.

The Camposanto images became highly influential and the inspirational source behind other Trecento images of the Last Judgement, such as Orcagna’s cycle with the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgement, and Hell in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, of which only a few fragments survive, and in the fresco decoration of the Strozzi chapel in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella, also in Florence. Located at the end of the western transept of the church, this was the family chapel of one of the ancient and richest families of Florence: the Strozzi. This chapel was commissioned by the heirs of Rosso di Gerio Strozzi’s (d. 1319) sons Ubertino, Strozza and Marco as the family tomb for their descendants, as detailed in Rosso’s last will of 1317 (Fig. 9). The chapel was later frescoed by Nardo di Cione (c. 1354-57) with a cycle of the Last Judgement, Paradise, and Hell, unfolding around the three walls of the space, which in that strategic position within the church, then led, via a flight of stairs, onto the Chiostro dei Morti (Cloister of the Dead), the oldest cemetery of the convent of Santa Maria Novella. The choice of subject was deliberate: although the chapel was dedicated to St Thomas Aquinas to whom the Strozzi were devoted, the family chose to decorate their private chapel with a cycle on the afterlife. At the time, the city of Florence would have been recovering from the effects of the plague, the Black Death, that had ravaged much of Europe in 1348, thus making the theme of the destiny of the soul after the death of the body particularly cogent. The cycle was carried out when Dante’s Divina Commedia had already been completed over a couple of decades earlier and was becoming known to the cultural and social elites of Florence. 

Fig. 9) Strozzi Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

However, the moralizing purpose of the frescoes in the chapel would have been apparent only to selected people, as the chapel was accessible only to members of the Strozzi family, the friars, and occasional visitors connected to the patrons by business or political ties. Endowing and decorating a chapel with pious images was one of the manifold ways to acquire the salvation of the patron’s soul and that of his family. As a wealthy family of bankers, the Strozzi perceptively recognised the importance of patronage in one of the most important Mendicant churches of Florence, and the choice of iconography is revealing of their knowledge of current devotional trends and relevant visual narratives.

 The window that occupies the west wall of the chapel obliged the artist to adapt the iconography of the Last Judgment to suit the reduced space (Fig. 10). Christ is therefore depicted half-length, in a mandorla of golden light and floating on a cloud. Angels are playing the trumpets of the Last Judgment and carry Christ’s instruments of Passion: the Arma Christi. The Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, flanked by the Apostles, are shown as intercessors with the divine. In the lower section of the fresco there is the crowd awaiting their final destination: on the left, the blessed that will be admitted to Paradise or Purgatory, and on the right the damned who will follow their destiny in the circles of Hell (Fig. 11). As in the chapel of the Podestà in the Bargello, a portrait of Dante has been recognised among the blessed, wearing the hat that has become traditionally associated with him (Fig. 12). The poet had never succeeded in going back to his native city of Florence, but his longing for the motherland was made evident in a chant of Paradise, where the passage with him “taking the hat” was thought by some scholars as a reference to Dante’s wish of being officially recognised as a poet by his fellow citizens, but even more cogently, of his desire to overturn his ban from Florence: 

“If it should happen that this sacred poem—

this work so shared by heaven and by earth,

that it has made me lean through these long years—

can ever overcome the cruelty 

that bars me from the fair fold where I slept,

a lamb opposed to wolves that war on it, 

by then with other voice, with other fleece,

I shall return as poet and put on,

and at my baptismal font, the hat.” (Par. XXV, 1-9).

Fig. 10) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, fresco, c. 1354-57, Strozzi Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
Fig. 11) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, Hell.
Fig. 12) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, detail with the portrait of Dante Alighieri?

The south wall of the Strozzi chapel features Paradise, with the Virgin and Christ majestically enthroned at the centre and surrounded by those admitted to Heaven (Fig. 13-14). On the opposite wall, the more complex architecture of Hell shows an array of corpses involved in horrific punishments. They appear fashioned on Dante’s descriptions in his Divina Commedia that had become available to wealthy readers through illuminated manuscript copies.

Fig. 13) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, Paradise.
Fig. 14) Nardo di Cione, Last Judgement, detail of Paradise with Saints and Blessed.

The images examined in this contribution articulate the concerns of Trecento society about the destiny of the soul after the death of the body. It has been shown through some relevant examples, how the Divina Commedia encapsulated these concerns and gave them voice through the characters that Dante met along his epic journey in the afterlife. The emotional intensity generated by contemporary theological debate and the new spirituality conveyed by the preaching of Mendicant Orders constituted part of the complex cultural environment in which Dante’s Divina Commedia was conceived and written. Societal views and concerns for the afterlife presented in Dante’s and other contemporary writings translated into visual narratives that were shared, replicated, and adapted to suit the needs and beliefs of individuals and groups, and were fostered by patrons in the civic, religious, and lay domains. This blog is intended as a modest contribution to this year’s celebrations for the 7th centenary of Dante’s death, the poet whose name our society bears. It is hoped that these essays will encourage further observations and studies on the relationship between Dante’s poetry and the visual arts across time, and that these celebrations will contribute to promoting cultural exchange and dialogue between cultures.

Further Reading:

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

Brilliant, Virginia, “Envisaging the Particular Last Judgement in Late-Medieval Italy”, Speculum, 84/2 (2009), pp. 314-346.

Frugoni, Chiara, “Cercando il Paradiso (il ciclo di Buffalmacco nel Camposanto di Pisa e la committenza Domenicana), Annali della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, 18/4 (1988), pp. 1557-1643. 

Maginnis, Hayden B.J., Painting in the Age of Giotto (University Park, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania University Press), 1997.

On Dante online:

https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/

On Boccaccio online:

https://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/boccaccio/life1_en.php

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