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Here is a fresco of the Cumaean Sybil by Andrea de Castagno from his “Series of Illustrious People for the Villa Carducci.” In case you were curious, the other illustrious people were Boccachio, Petrarch, Dante, and Pippo Spano (who was apparently a confidant of of King Sigismund of Hungary). This is sort of a strange group, but the oddest figure is the quasi mythical sybil from ancient Rome. When we have more time to write a , we are going to come back to the Cumaean Sybil. I need to write more about Apollo (a god who has been perplexing me more and more) and the Cumaean Sybil was one of the foremost priestesses of Apollo. In this picture (which dates from around 1450), she is dressed as a beautiful Renaissance noblewoman with a diadem and a regal purple gown. Yet her book, her orator’s pose, and her sharp clever features clearly indicate her status a wise oracle. Del Castagno was something of a sphinx among Florentine artists (all of Vasari’s juiciest details about his life are demonstrably wrong) yet the Cumaean Sybil here looks like she knows something.
I am uncertain as to whether I should include demons and fallen angels in my “Deities of the Underworld” topic category. They certainly seem to be immortal chthonic gods (or at least demigods) who are based in a land of torment and perdition beneath the ground, but, ever since the revelation at Sinai, monotheists get very touchy when one starts bandying about the G-word. Irrespective, I think I will brave the scorn of the Abrahamic peoples and include this post in that thread.
Such a question is relevant because today, tomorrow, and Friday, I will feature three masterpieces of Gothic painting which portray demons! Get out your asbestos gloves and put aside your squeamishness concerning scales, claws, talons, and horns because the great gothic painters lived in the medieval world where demons were taken very seriously
This first work is by Florentine artist Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni (1369 – 1415). Almost nothing is known of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni, but it is believed he was originally a manuscript illuminator who made the jump to panel painter. Whatever his background was, he has certainly given us a vivid demon painting. This is the bottom panel in an altarpiece, Polyptych with Coronation of the Virgin & Saints painted around 1390. It depicts the temptation of Saint Anthony and what a temptation! A bevy of rainbow colored demons, each wielding a unique implement of torture, torment the prostrate saint in order to convince him to renounce his faith. Not for Cenni di Francesco the nubile lovelies who characteristically tempt the ascetic Anthony—this Saint is tempted by putting an end his pain! On a deeper level the fiends may represent the privations and hardships of Anthony’s anchoretic life in Egypt’s eastern desert. These animal hybrid demons have particularly animated features and distinct personalities. I wonder if Maurice Sendak happened across this image because his wild things bear a passing resemblance to Anthony’s tormentors.
This is a tiny portion of a magnificent edifice of individual paintings. Cenni di Francesco’s works all come together in a towering gothic structure dedicated to the glory of the saints and their faith. The work is so large and all-encompassing that the torments of a few demons seem almost like a minor matter–which is perhaps part of the artwork’s meaning. The entire alterpiece is today located at the Getty Museum, so if you are around Los Angeles, you can drop in and look at the actual artwork.