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A Gleam in the Eye Visions of Heaven: Dante and the Art of Divine Light
By Martin Kemp (Lund Humphries 240pp £45)
In the arena of our earthbound senses, within the context of the physical phenomena of the material world, there are extremes that lie outside the scope of our vision, as Ibn al-Haytham and subsequent authors had recognised. This shortcoming provides a ready analogy that can help us understand the inaccessible nature of supreme truths to our ‘dazzled’ intellect.
Detail from Matthias Grünewald’s ‘Isenheim Altarpiece’, c 1512–6
Books written to mark literary anni- versaries and books about Renais- sance art have, to my mind, something in common: one often approaches them with a degree of trepidation. Will the author really have anything new to say or are they only cashing in on a numerological coincidence or on the beauty of their subject matter? From such a standpoint, Martin Kemp’s Visions of Heaven is doubly worth celebrating, for it offers a wonderfully original and stimulating account of Italian Renaissance art by approaching it from a new perspective: as a series of attempts to deal with the problem of how to represent ‘divine light’ – a problem that also faced the greatest Italian vernacular poet, Dante Alighieri, who died seven hundred years ago.
Christianity is only one of many religions in which an analogy between light and the divine is frequently drawn. Moreover, the analogy is often a double one. Like light, God reveals and gives life. But the transcendence of the divine can also be blinding or unfathomable. Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the journey through Heaven in the third part, ‘Paradise’, is probably the West’s deepest and most sustained engagement with this double analogy. Moreover, it was an engagement mediated through not only theology but also science. Drawing on important previous work by Simon Gilson, Kemp demonstrates Dante’s familiarity with the intricacies of medieval Arabic and European optics, perhaps the most sophisticated branch of medieval science. In particular, the idea of the eye being ‘overwhelmed’ by light, even in the terrestrial world, clearly influenced the poet’s account of experiencing Heaven:
Modern readers are most often drawn to the ‘Inferno’, with its deliciously diverse descriptions of punishments for various sins. Kemp shows how Dante strived for a subtler form of variety in ‘Paradise’ through increasingly intense accounts of divine light and the overwhelming of Dante’s senses. Beatrice, the real version of whom Dante had loved from afar in Florence, guides him through Heaven. Dante is initially blinded by her beauty, but they are soon embroiled in an optical-theological debate concerning the dark patches on the moon. This may not seem the natural thing to do when you haven’t seen the love of your life for more than a decade, but, as Kemp sagely reminds us, we should not forget Dante’s distance from the present (especially if we are reading him in modern translation). The poet frequently deals ‘with erudite niceties of Mediaeval theology to which very few of us now have access’, such as the question of whether the light with which the spirits now glow can endure when they are resurrected in the flesh.
As Dante ascends through the spheres in Paradise, it gradually becomes clear that he feels his words failing in the same way as his senses. He is temporarily blinded by a glimpse of St John. Then, when he finally reaches the Trinity, he admits that ‘now my fable will fall far short’; in Kemp’s words, his vision becomes ‘sublimely abstract, ineffable and eternal’, involving only three circles, identifiable as the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Dante could write of the unseeable. But how could Renaissance artists meet the challenge of portraying the unfathomable, the overwhelming and the divine (especially if they had been trained to follow meticulously the rules of optics, as so many of them had)? The images appended to manuscript and printed versions of the Divine Comedy are largely disappointing in this regard, for the most
Literary Review | may 2021 6