Visions of Heaven

Visions of Heaven

Dante and the Art of Divine Light

Martin Kemp
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Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is one of the greatest European writers, whose untrammelled imaginative capacity was matched by a huge base in learning embracing the science of his era. His texts also paint compelling visual images. In Visions of Heaven, renowned scholar Martin Kemp investigates Dante' s supreme vision of divine light and its implications for the visual artists who were the inheritors of Dante' s vision. The whole book may be regarded as a new Paragone (comparison), the debate that began in the Renaissance about which of the arts is superior. Dante' s ravishing accounts of divine light set painters the severest challenge, which took them centuries to meet. A major theme running through Dante' s Divine Comedy, particularly in its third book, the Paradiso, centres on Dante' s acts of seeing (conducted according to optical rules with respect to the kind of visual experience that can be accomplished on earth) and the overwhelming of Dante' s earthly senses by heavenly light, which does not obey his rules of earthly optics. The repeated blinding of Dante by excessive light sets the tone for artists' portrayal of unseeable brightness. When Saul falls from his horse in Michelangelo' s Vatican fresco, the hand with which he shields his eyes casts no shadow. Divine light does not obey earthly rule, as Dante stressed. Raphael shows himself to be the greatest master of spiritual radiance, while Correggio works his radiant magic in his dome illusions. When Baciccio evokes the glories of the name of Jesus in the huge vault of the Jesuit Church in Rome he does so with an ineffable light that explodes though encircling clusters of glowing angels, whose pink bodies are bleached by the extreme luminosity of the light source. Published to coincide with the 700th anniversary of Dante' s death, this hugely original book combines a close reading of Dante' s poetry with analysis of early optics and the art of the Renaissance and Baroque to create a fascinating, wide-ranging and visually exciting study.
Martin Kemp is Emeritus Research Professor in the History of Art at Oxford University. He has written and broadcast extensively on imagery in art and science, from the Renaissance to the present day.