“Covid and Anti-Waxers”
JK, this is a picture of 13th century hell from Florence Baptistery. Europe has been plagued by many plagues and epidemics for centuries – and in the Middle Ages (before they performed the miracle of the vaccine), they thought it was the wrath of God or Satan that was making their lives miserable. There was no science to ignore them – like today, when many in our society insist on bringing this avoidable misery to our community.
At the time, life was “wicked, brutal, and short-lived”, obsessed with what came after medieval people: would I go to heaven or hell? And this mosaic made clear the fate of the wicked. You will be sent to hell, where the soul is swallowed up by horned ogres, bitten by snakes, harassed by spoke-eared monsters, and roasted in eternal fire.
The Baptistery of Florence is even older than this 13th century mosaic. Built on top of the Roman Foundation, it is the oldest surviving building in the city – about 1,000 years old. Baptistery is best known for its bronze renaissance doors (including the “Gates of Heaven” of Ghibarti), but its interior still retains a medieval mood. It is dark and mysterious, topped with an octagonal dome of gold mosaics of angels and biblical scenes.
It is the mosaic of Judgment Day to be mastered. Christ sits on a throne, extends his arms, and gives the final thumbs-up and thumbs-down. The righteous go to heaven, others to hell.
Of course, in medieval times no one knew what hell was. Even the Bible lacked anything specific, only describing a place that was dark, underground, burning, unpleasant, eternal, and detached from the kingdom of blessing.
The mission of the artists who made this mosaic: to bring hell to life. It is a chaotic entanglement, scattered corpses, scattered snakes and flames of fire. In the center sits a bull-headed monster, his arms outstretched like Christ’s monstrous Doppelganger. He jumps on a poor spirit, grabs the next path with his hand, and jumps on two more spirits, while snakes can catch more prey from his ears and tail.
Such graphic descriptions were groundbreaking in pre-Renaissance times. We see the beast’s six-pack abs, braided beard and wrinkled red cloak that echoes the blazing fire. Cursed people have natural postures – crouching, bending, gestures – and their sore faces tell a sad story of eternal torment.
The reality of this mosaic proved to be extremely influential for proto-Renaissance artists such as Giotto, and the building itself inspired Renaissance architects such as Brunelleschi. And shortly after this mosaic was completed, a small child named Dante Alighieri was immersed in the Baptismal font just below it. Dante is well aware of this hellish scene. When he wrote his epic, Inferno (“Hell”), he described it with the same vivid imagery: crazy landscapes, crowds of naked people, a minotaur in the center, and so on. Dante’s motifs have inspired other artists over the centuries (such as Giotto and Signorelli) who created European altars, paintings, novels, and paintings. These have shaped the imagination of people all over the world. And much of it can be found in the Florentine Baptists and the anonymous artists who labored here in the 13th century, determined to give them hell.