Visions of the Afterlife
Ideas pertaining to hell and the afterlife were frequently depicted during the Middle Ages. These images conceptualise hell in a number of intriguing ways, as an exhibition opening at the J. Paul Getty Museum reveals
Martin Schwarz, Tuesday, 1st May 2012
The forthcoming exhibition of manuscripts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, ‘Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages’ (29 May–12 August), delves into many aspects of the medieval fascination with life beyond death.1 Although the show includes a variety of media, such as stained glass and panel painting, it focuses principally on the medieval book as a particularly fitting conduit for meditation on matters of death and the afterlife. Whether attracting the devout or those who simply sought the profane enjoyment of a frisson, detailed ekphrastic representations of the netherworld found especially fecund ground in the illuminated book. This exhibition, drawn primarily from the J. Paul Getty Museum’s collections, brings together some of the most famous and visually striking products of this imagination, including books of hours, illuminated apocalypses and visionary literature, such as Dante’s 14th-century epic poem, The Divine Comedy.
By means of a select group of objects from around 1500, this article explores the fabrication of hell through the brushwork of artists at the turn of the century. A terrifying locus, hell occupied the minds of generations of believing Christians from late antiquity through to the Renaissance, and it was an imaginary place in constant flux.2 Although the existence of hell is documented in scripture, sacred writ remained conspicuously tentative in its delineation of the place of retribution for the wicked. Perhaps it was this biblical imprecision that stirred the insatiable artistic adventurousness that marks the medieval period. With exceptional fervour, medieval writers and artists endowed hell with a distinct appearance, topography and history, and populated it with horrible demons afflicting gruesome punishments.
Hell held a special appeal for the medieval imagination. Unlike heaven, which defied geographical localisation, hell, from very early on, was thought to be a concrete place within the earth. For Pope Gregory the Great (c. 540–604), volcanoes were the entry points to Satan’s realm.3 Although the Apocalypse of Paul from the 4th century (based on the mid-2nd-century Apocalypse of Peter) was the first substantial and widely popular visionary tour of hell, in the centuries that followed a massive corpus of poetic, visionary and theological accounts of hell proliferated, complemented in the 12th century by the ‘invention’ of purgatory as an intermediary state and place for souls before the Last Judgment.4 Artistic visualisations of the afterlife were inspired as much by a theological discourse as by the folklore of a less high-minded laity.
Three objects featured in the exhibition – two manuscripts and a printed book – are of particular note for the idiosyncratic visions of hell they present and vivify. The Spinola Hours (J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. Ludwig IX 18), created around 1515 and named after its later owners, is one of the finest Flemish books of hours ever produced (Fig. 1).5 Luxurious religious works of art offered a pious ‘loop hole’ for elite patrons interested in displaying their wealth. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain about the identity of the original owner of the Spinola Hours, but he or she was likely to have been related to the court of Burgundy and must have ranked among the most potent and rich patrons of the arts of the time.6
A spectacular opening marks the beginning of the ‘Office of the Dead’, a prayer recited to alleviate the sufferings of the deceased. The design of the Spinola Hours’ double-page miniature, illustrating the parable of the beggar Lazarus and Dives7 in the Gospel of Luke (16:19–31), is stunning. Here the traditional mise-en-page of text and image has dissolved into a complex illusion wherein text and image are rearranged in a segmented virtual space. On the left, through a delicate golden frame, we witness Lazarus begging at the door of the nobleman Dives.
A second inner frame holds a painted strip of parchment bearing the initial words of the ‘Office of the Dead’, while in a perspectival cross section, the illusionistic view offered by the painting gives access to the interior of the rich man’s townhouse. As Dives celebrates a sumptuous feast within, the artist makes him a vivid exemplar of anything but charity, the greatest of the three theological virtues. Instead this rich man sets his dogs onto the poor man at his door. Skilfully transposing the biblical story into a contemporary urban setting, such as that of Bruges or Ghent, the artist lends it a particular relevance to a 16th-century viewer. He also exhibits a striking attention to the minutiae of poverty, including Lazarus’ rugged clothes, the sores on his legs and his emaciated face. To create the sense of dichotomy, for the scene of Dives the artist indulges in rendering luxury in a variety of forms: elaborate architecture, colourful textiles, delicious foods, exotic animals (a monkey and a parrot), jewellery and, most tellingly, human obesity. In this manner, the miniature inventories the attributes of the hell-bound, visually amplifying the precept communicated in the Gospel of Luke by Jesus: ‘Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’8
In the lowest register of the painting on this page, Lazarus has died and his soul is received by two angels who carry it into the bosom of Abraham on the facing page.
The dead Dives, by contrast, is sent to hell – here, on the right, located in a burning valley rather than underneath the earth.9 The New Testament parable of Lazarus and Dives was an important scriptural cornerstone for patristic writers such as Augustine for conceptualising hell as a place of physical punishment, in opposition to earlier inter-pretations that figured hell as a place of allegorical suffering.10 Throughout the Middle Ages, well into the beginning of the 16th century when the Spinola Hours was created, artists elaborated hell with creatures, torments and terrors – from the fantastic to the horrific – with ever more idiosyncratic concrete form. The Spinola Hours gives us an impressive demonstration of this lively, if terrifying, inventiveness – within the image, it would seem that the rich man’s pursuit of exotica in this world has been answered by a bizarre troop of monstrous reptiles in the netherworld. One trigger-happy tormenter, an anthropomorphised winged lizard, aims an arquebus (one of the latest developments in Western weapon technology at the time) at the rich man, whose face has turned into a painful grimace while he is tortured in horrifying ways. In contrast to this visually exuberant representation of hell, it is striking how little space on the page has been alotted to the scene of Abraham receiving the beggar in heaven above. Gazing at the Spinola Hours, one cannot avoid confronting a paradoxical tension resting between the story’s moral and its lavish depiction in this luxurious prayer book.
Another manuscript in the show, The Visions of Tondal (J. Paul Getty Museum, Ms. 30), takes the viewer on an awe-inspiring tour of heaven and hell.11 It is based on the Visio Tnugdali, a 12th-century visionary tale from Ireland composed in Latin, telling the story of the wayward knight Tondal. At a dinner, Tondal suffers a seizure, leaving his body life-less for three days. Meanwhile, the soul of the knight and its guardian angel embark on a phantasmal otherworldly voyage. The angel shows Tondal heaven and the rewards of the blessed, as well as hell and the many punish-ments awaiting sinners like himself. Finally, his soul is restored to its body, and Tondal, having learned the moral lesson, henceforth leads a righteous life. Although little known today, the Visio Tnugdali was once the most widely read visionary journey of the afterlife, even rivalling the popularity of Dante’s Divine Comedy until the end of the 15th century.12
Widely ascribed to the celebrated Flemish artist, Simon Marmion (c. 1425–89), the Getty manuscript, with its miniature paintings, has to be counted among the most original and stunning works in his oeuvre. Produced in 1475 for the Burgundian Duchess and bibliophile Margaret of York, The Visions of Tondal is the only known illuminated copy.13 Of the 20 images Marmion painted in the book, 10 (six more than for heaven) depict Tondal’s guardian angel introducing him to the various kinds of fantastic torments reserved for individual types of sin. Together, they witness the punishment of heretics who are alternately thrown into an icy pond and a great fire (Fig. 2), they visit the giant monstrous bird that eats unchaste monks and nuns (Fig. 3), and encounter Lucifer, the prince of hell, chained to an iron grill over blazing coals (Fig. 4). Marmion’s infernal landscapes are plunged into seemingly impenetrable darkness. Only gradually, with close scrutiny, do the deep shadows reveal faint glimpses of details, often too delicate in their rendering to be captured photographically.
The Visio Tnugdali stands at the peak of a long literary tradition of medieval netherworld voyages.14 Although permeated by an often heavy-handed moralisation, these intensely graphic accounts of hell must have exerted a gripping effect on their audience. On folio 17, the knight Tondal and his guardian angel observe the beast Acheron, devourer of the avaricious (Fig. 5). The text relishes the opportunity to depict Acheron’s gaping maw:
'The beast had two eyes such that they resembled two large embers, all ablaze. Indeed, its mouth was so cavernous and so wide that ten thousand knights, armed and on their horses, could have entered it at the same time all in a single row…A fire of wondrous size, which could never be extinguished, issued forth from that mouth, dividing itself into three parts. The spirit of the knight heard the painful cries of the unfortunate souls who, inside the hideous beast, were shouting their strident laments in such great numbers that no one could count them.'15
In Marmion’s painting of this moment, the mouth of Acheron is a glowing abyss in the pitch darkness. The effects of light and the outburst of colour bedazzle the eye. Two black devils impaled on the teeth push apart the monstrous jaws. The illuminator fabricated the fiery spectacle out of multiple layers of diaphanous hues of red, engulfing the souls of the avaricious baking within the mouth in blazing flames. Climbing from its lips, the tongues of flames licking at the monster’s face change swiftly from red to yellow, orange, purple, blue and turqouise; a painterly tour de force captures the polychromatic flickering of fire when buffeted by a fierce blow of wind. In the ambience of this infernal scene one discerns dimly lit demons ready to snatch and throw new souls into Acheron’s gaping mouth with the long hooks they wield. Eschewing the gory for the sublime, Marmion’s underworld scenes transcend their ostensible purpose to provoke pious dread in their viewers; in Margaret of York's Tondal manuscript, the artist has transformed hell into a world of mesmerising beauty.
Turning from the exotic and exuberant in the Spinola Hours to the sublime and beautiful in The Visions of Tondal, the third object to be discussed here introduces a supposedly modern scientific vantage on hell, as it was envisaged in the Renaissance. The 1515 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy16 from the Aldine Press includes a double-page woodcut map of the Inferno (Fig. 6).17 The Divine Comedy is divided into three parts, Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory) and Paradiso (Heaven), and Dante conceived of the Inferno as a funnel, located beneath Jerusalem, extending from just below the surface of the earth down to its centre, where Lucifer is trapped in a frozen lake. The Inferno is comprised of nine concentric circles corresponding to the nine categories of deadly sin.
The Renaissance interest in ‘infernal cartography’18 coincided with great advances in contemporary mapmaking. In fact, it was two Florentine architects and mathematicians, Antonio Manetti and Filippo Brunelleschi, who first computed the dimensions of Dante’s Inferno.19 Incorporated in the 1481 commentary on The Divine Comedy by Cristoforo Landino, Manetti’s calculations henceforth served as a model for many generations of maps of the Inferno, including the present example.
Dante’s Inferno was not taken solely as a product of a literary imagination in the modern sense. Stemming from a tradition of visionary afterworld accounts such as the Visio Tnugdali (which Dante supposedly knew), the poem conveyed enough of an aura of revealed truth to provoke a century-long debate among Renaissance readers about the shape, size and exact location of the Inferno. At times the lines between poetic fiction and theological reality were blurred, and it is thus hardly surprising that during the heyday of early modern cartography, these maps of hell were composed with scientific seriousness. The 1515 map charts the infernal terrain in some detail: it gives the crucial landmarks of Jerusalem (at the geometrical centre above the cone) and the city of Cumae (near Lake Avernus, marking the entrance to the underworld),20 it outlines the shape and structure of the funnel (reminiscent of an amphitheatre), provides captions and inscriptions, and traces the path taken by Dante and Virgil in a dotted line from Cumae to the lowest circle. In addition, it provides Manetti’s calculations of the diameter and depth of the Inferno, as well as the height and breadth of each circle. These measurements were not mentioned by Dante but were extrapolated by Manetti and others from bits and pieces of mensural information about the dimensions of the Inferno contained in the poem. For instance, in cantos 29 and 30 we learn that the circumference of the lowest of the 10 ditches of the eighth circle (the Malebolge) equals 11 miles and the second lowest ditch, so the poem tell us, measures 22 miles, i.e. twice the circumference of the lowest one.21 If one presumes (as Renaissance humanists did) that the universe is built according to mathematical proportions, then one can extrapolate the circumference of the remaining eight ditches of the eighth circle (10th circle = 11 miles; ninth circle = 22 miles; eighth circle = 44 miles, and so forth).22 These subterranean computations became more complex and conjectural, based as they were on the vague and quite obscure data given by Dante. It is doubtful that Dante had a precise geometrical vision of the architecture of hell encrypted in the poem – but this did not curb the enthusiasm of Renaissance scholars, in the age of Columbus and the great explorations, to extract and interpret measurements from the text in order to discover and chart this terra incognita.23
Looking back at the history of early modern science, one might attribute this seemingly bizarre desire to map a fictive landscape with mathematical precision to a modern scientific mentality that was still in its fledgling stages at the start of the 16th century. At the end of the same century, however, the young Galileo Galilei, whose scientific genius would eventually topple the Ptolemaic universe, delivered his two-part inaugural lecture to the Accademia Fiorentina on exactly this topic: ‘The Shape, Location and Size of Dante’s Inferno’24 defended Manetti’s calculations with mathematical rigour against Alessandro Vellutello’s more recent computa-tions of 1544.
The two manuscripts and the woodcut map considered here convey distinct notions of realism, though all three pertain to the same increasing interest in the physical world. With unsurpassed technical skill and the penchant for detail typical of Northern Renaissance painting, the Spinola Hours and The Visions of Tondal dramatise a vision of the underworld filled with stunning effects of light and darkness, and populated by demonic bodies. By contrast, the 1515 Venetian map of the Inferno exploits a novel, quasi-scientific commitment to empirical realism, developed in the context of contemporary cartography, to chart infernal terrain. On the verge of the 16th century, these compelling, if divergent, visions of hell reveal how a new sense of reality, and aesthetic realism, conquered even the netherworld.
Martin Schwarz is the curator of ‘Heaven, Hell, and Dying Well: Images of Death in the Middle Ages’ at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (29 May until 12 August). For further details on the exhibition and to visit the museum, go to www.getty.edu/museum.
1/ I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Kristen Collins, Thomas Kren, Beth Morrison and Christine Sciacca from the Manuscripts Department at the J. Paul Getty Museum for their infinite support and dear friendship. For the preparation of this article, I am deeply indebted
to Aden Kumler, Beth Morrison and Nancy Thebaut.
2/ A good overview is offered by: Alan E. Bernstein, The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian World, Ithaca and London, 1993; Herbert Vorgrimler, Geschichte der Hölle, Munich, 1993; and Peter Jezler (ed.), Himmel, Hölle, Fegefeuer: Das Jenseits im Mittelalter, Zurich, 1994, exh. cat., Schweizerisches Landesmuseum.
3/ Gregory the Great, Dialogues, Book 4, ch. 30.
4/ For an anthology of visionary afterworld literature, see Eileen Gardiner (ed.), Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante, New York, 1989; and D.D.R. Owen, The Vision of Hell: Infernal Journeys in Medieval French Literature, Edinburgh and London, 1970. For a history of purgatory, see Jacques Le Goff’s seminal study, The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Chicago, 1984.
5/ Anton von Euw and Joachim Plotzek, Die Handschriften der Sammlung Ludwig, 4 vols., Cologne, 1979–85, vol. 2 (1982), pp. 256–85; Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: the Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe, Los Angeles, 2003, exh. cat., J. Paul Getty Museum, cat. no. 124, pp. 414–17.
6/ Scholars have suggested Margaret of Austria as the original owner, but we have no certain evidence. See Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, op. cit., p. 416.
7/ ‘Dives’ is not the name of an individual but stems from the Latin, meaning ‘rich man’.
8/ The New International Version Bible, 18:25.
9/ The depiction of hell as a valley might be inspired by the Hebrew Bible, where Gehenna, the place of the dead, is identical with the Valley of Hinnom, and by Psalm 87:5, which refers to hell as lacus (Latin: basin,
10/ See Augustine, The City of God against the Pagans, Book XXI, chs. 9–10; cf. Alan E. Bernstein, op. cit., pp. 239–41, and esp. 327; Herbert Vorgrimler, op. cit., pp. 21–22.
11/ The most important publications are Thomas Kren and Roger S. Wieck, The Visions of Tondal: From the Library of Margaret of York, Los Angeles, 1990; Thomas Kren (ed.), Margaret of York, Simon Marmion and the Visions of Tondal, Los Angeles, 1992; Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, op. cit., cat. no. 14, pp. 112–16.
12/ The text survives in 243 medieval manuscripts and was translated during the Middle Ages into every major European language. The text
of the Getty manuscript is in French. See Thomas Kren and Roger S. Wieck, op. cit., p. 3.
13/ The colophon of the court scribe David Aubert on fols. 43v–44 indicate 1475 as the date and Ghent as the place of execution of the Getty manuscript.
14/ Herbert Vorgrimler, op. cit.,
ch. 9, pp. 132–74.
15/ Quoted after the translation in Thomas Kren and Roger S. Wieck,
op. cit., p. 44.
16/ Originally published under
the title Dante col sito, et forma dell’inferno tratta dalla istessa descrittione del poeta. The copy on display in the exhibition is a generous loan from the Charles E. Young Research Library at the University
of California, Los Angeles (no. Z233.A4 D23 1515, c. 1).
17/ The seminal study of the cartography of Dante’s Inferno is Henrik Engel, Dantes Inferno: Zur Geschichte der Höllenvermessung und des Höllentrichtermotivs, Berlin and Munich, 2006; see also John Kleiner, Mismapping the Underworld: Daring and Error in Dante’s ‘Comedy’, Stanford, 1994, ch. 2, pp. 23–56.
18/ I am borrowing this term from John Kleiner.
19/ Brunelleschi’s records do not survive. See John Kleiner, op. cit.,
20/ Lake Avernus is a volcanic crater lake near Naples. The Romans considered it to be the entrance to Hades. In Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas descends there to the underworld through the Cave of the Sibyl. Dante himself does not specify where he
and his guide Virgil enter hell, but Bocaccio later identified it with the same Lake Avernus.
21/ Inferno 29.8–10 and 30.84–87.
22/ John Kleiner, op. cit., p. 35.
23/ Computations of the Inferno experienced a renaissance in the 19th century and were still debated in the 20th century: Allan H. Gilbert, ‘Can Dante’s Inferno Be Exactly Charted?’, in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA), vol. 60, no. 2 (June 1945), pp. 287–306.
24/ Given in 1588. Galileo Galilei, ‘Due lezioni all’Accademia Fiorentina circa la figura, sito e grandezza dell’Inferno di Dante’, in Le Opere di Galileo Galilei, vol. 9, Florence, 1968, pp. 29–57. An English translation by Mark A. Peterson is available online at www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/mpeterso/galileo/inferno.html
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