SiStan ChapLee

Thursday, November 19, 2015

To hell with the Bible -- in a positive sense

Beccafumi -- whose real name was Domenico Di Giacomo Di Pace -- belongs to the long series of Renaissance "lesser masters" whose fame has been eclipsed from the general public by the holy trinity Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo. A feature shared by such "lesser masters," farther from the eyes of big sponsors (the Popes and/or the Medici, etc.), was the greater freedom they enjoyed in reworking traditional subjects. On the other hand, precisely because their skills in anatomy and perspective could not compete with The Fantastic Three, they focused on the originality of contents.

This having been said, the painting above can be seen in the Dome of Pisa, Tuscany; it was made in 1537. The official subject matter is the punishment of anti-Moses rebels in the wilderness, a theme of a major relevance for the Renaissance Catholic Church especially after the beginning of Luther's Reformation, but even earlier, see e.g. the lower frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.

In Beccafumi's version there's something strange at the very first sight. The scene in the background works plainly: people in the wilderness/desert, being struck by flames out of the sky. But then, we notice a non-existent forest in the middle (on the right) and an unbelievable dark-red river in the foreground, where angry people try to float, and meanwhile fight. Looks like the situation was worse than expected! In fact, the blood river, the forest, and the sands under a shower of flames correspond perfectly to the three parts of the seventh circle in Dante's Inferno (violence of all kinds). Oh, yes, it is always thrilling to "read" a Renaissance painting.