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Visions of Heaven: Dante and the divine light, by Martin Kemp

10 September 2021

Nicholas Cranfield on the finding of literary and artistic connections

PROFESSOR Martin Kemp’s latest book takes up an essay on divine light which he wrote in 1996 as a study of optics and perspective in the Renaissance art of Piero della Francesca, Raphael, and Michelangelo. Here, he sets up a paragone between poetics and the visual arts, principally painting, although Bernini appears as a sculptor (the Cornaro Chapel). The 700th anniversary of Dante’s death offers a coat-hanger for a range of studies that end up feeling uncertain and inchoate, but offer Kemp’s exemplary observations and characteristic associations of images.

He begins with an understanding of optics known in the age of Dante; the Islamic philosopher Alhazen and “the British [sic] Archbishop” John Peckham; and, before plunging into the Paradiso, has a chapter on the mechanisms of sight in two other works, the Vita Nuova (1294) and the unfinished Convivio.

Readers will feel more at home in the third chapter that illustrates Dante’s text, including the illuminated pages of a Genoese manuscript of 1350, the later Sienese graphics of Giovanni di Paolo (British Library), and the famed Botticelli drawings that were last shown together in the millennial exhibition in Berlin and Rome, and at the Royal Academy (Arts, 30 March 2001).

Thereafter, Dante and his poetry become increasingly irrelevant in an account of how artists sought to portray the heavenly vision. Some are more “Dantesque” than others: the swirling heavenly hosts of Fra Angelico’s Last Judgements and the National Gallery’s Francesco Botticini’s Assumption of the Virgin, for instance. Rubens in the Jesuit church in Antwerp, on the other hand, is not looking back to Dante Alighieri.

What the second half of the book does achieve, however, is a valuable reminder to look up into the ceiling vaults and domes of buildings put up after the 15th century, when such lavish decoration brought heaven down to earth, as men and women gained in self-confidence to stand in front of God. No longer did all artists try to differentiate between the wonders of the natural light and the nature of divine light, a shift perceptible as early as in Giovanni Bellini.

© martin kempFrançois de Aquilón (Agullonius), Opticorum libri sex, Antwerp, 1613, title page (detail) by Rubens, engraved by Theodore Galle, and used in Martin Kemp’s book

The illusionism embraced by Correggio in Parma, both in the Church of St John and the cathedral, and by Giovanni di San Giovanni in the Roman Basilica of Santi Quattro Coronati reached a supreme apogee in 1639, when Pietro da Cortona completed a vast ceiling painting for Pope Urban VIII in the Palazzo Barberini as a triumph of nepotism.

The final chapter leaves Dante behind, and brings Bishop Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253) into a dialogue with Werner Heisenberg and Kurt Gödel about physics and the relationship between the seen and unseen, retreating to the comfort of the 15th-century Nicholas of Cusa. Kemp’s is anything other than a tract On Learned Ignorance, but maybe here is an idea for another fascinating book.

By way of supplementing the bibliography, I would recommend Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A history (1988), and Piero Camporesi, The Fear of Hell (1987).

For such an expensive book, the author might be less than pleased with the colour saturation of many of the images. It seems that Slovene printers retain a 1970s Technicolor preference; Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece looks like a film set for a Gothic horror movie, and blues throughout (Raphael’s Foligno Madonna) have become eye-wateringly lurid.

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London


Visions of Heaven: Dante and the divine light
Martin Kemp
Lund Humphries £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

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