If you’ve ever had to scramble to tidy up your place before your parents come to visit, then you’ll appreciate the superhuman effort involved when Papa Francesco is the one coming to visit.
On November 10th, Pope Francis will be traveling to the city of Florence for the first time, on the occasion of the 5th National Ecclesial Convention of the Italian Church. The event, which takes place every few years, brings together bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity to discuss the state of the Church in Italy. Just in time, Florence has completed the restoration of its famous Romanesque Baptistery, the first major renovation to the structure in many decades. Restoration of the famous two sets of bronze doors which Lorenzo Ghiberti created for the structure in the 15th century has also been completed. The Pope will tour the Baptistery before making his way into the Duomo, i.e. the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, to address the participants at the Convention.
While most historians focus on the Baptistery’s remarkable architectural symmetry, including the influence it had on the study of perspective, or on the hugely influential doors by Pisano and later Ghiberti, for me perhaps the most interesting aspect of this building is its magnificent mosaic ceiling on the interior. This lavish, imaginative work shows us the beginning of the transition away from the Byzantine style around the 13th century, as interpreted by Venice in particular, and the emergence of a native, Tuscan form of art. While still very much in the artistic orbit of Byzantium, here we begin to see details which, later, will come to indicate the early Florentine Renaissance.
Of particular note is the wild vision of Hell in the Last Judgment section of the ceiling, in which an enormous Satan is simultaneously munching on the souls of three of the damned, along with the assistance of his minions. This representation made a profound impression on the great Florentine poet Dante, who particularly loved this building, and in his “Inferno” he describes the Devil exactly thus. Also note the presence of crowned rulers and hooded clerics who led their people astray on Satan’s right, who are about to become the next items on the infernal banquet: a sobering image, indeed.
While many Medieval artists portrayed the Last Judgement with greater horror, or deeper introspection, there is something about the almost comic book rendering of this image that draws and holds the eye. The searing red rocks and flames, juxtaposed against the putrid gray-green of the Devil and his demons, gives quite an impact. It transforms the golden background from the standard Byzantine convention for representation of religious scenes, into an evocation of sulfuric clouds and an oppressive atmosphere.
As the artists who worked on this piece understood, while the Devil will no doubt enjoy the never-ending sushi conveyor belt, it is certainly not going to be pleasant for those of us who own up here.