“COVID and the Anti-Vaxxers”
JK, It’s a 13th-century image of Hell from a Florentine baptism. Europe suffered many plagues and epidemics over the centuries – and in the Middle Ages (before they had the miracle of vaccines), they believed that it was the wrath of God or Satan that was making their lives miserable. They had no science to ignore – unlike today, when many in our society insist on bringing this avoidable misery to our society.
At the time, life was “bad, brutish, and short,” which made medieval people obsessed with what came next: Will I go to Heaven or Hell? This mosaic made clear what would be the fate of the wicked. You will be sent to Hell, where spirits are devoured by horned ogres, gnawed by serpents, harassed by eared demons, and burned by eternal fires.
The baptistery of Florence is even older than the mosaic of the thirteenth century. Built on Roman foundations, it is the oldest building in the city – it is about 1,000 years old. Baptistery is famous for its Bronze Renaissance doors (including Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise”), but its interior still retains a medieval mood. It is dark and mysterious, topped with an octagonal dome of golden mosaics of angels and scenes from the Bible.
Everything is dominated by the doomsday mosaic. Christ sits on the throne, arms out wide, giving thumbs up and thumbs down. The righteous go to heaven and the others to hell.
Of course, no one in the Middle Ages knew exactly what hell was. Even the Bible lacks detail, describing only a place that is dark, underground, fiery, unpleasant, eternal, and cut off from the world of the Blessed.
The mission of the artists who made this mosaic: to bring life back to Hell. It’s a chaotic tangle of deformed bodies, slithering snakes, and licking flames. In the center sits a beast with the head of a bull and its arms outstretched, like the demonic likeness of Christ. He devours one poor soul, holds the next path with his hands, and tramples on two others, while snakes sprout from his ears and tail to grab more victims.
Graphic details like this were pioneering in pre-Renaissance times. We see his six-pack abs, a braided beard, and a wrinkled red robe that echoes with shimmering flames. The damned have natural postures – crouched, crooked, nodding – and their miserable faces tell a sad story of eternal torment.
The realism of these mosaics proved to be a huge influence on Renaissance artists like Giotto, and the building itself inspired Renaissance architects like Brunelleschi. Soon after this mosaic was completed, a young child named Dante Alighieri was dipped in the baptismal font directly below it. Dante grew up well aware of this infernal spectacle. When he wrote his epic poem, Inferno (“Hell”), he described it with the same vivid images: rocky landscapes, crowds of naked wretched people, a Minotaur in the middle, etc. Dante’s motifs have inspired other artists over the centuries (such as Giotto and Signorelli) who created paintings, paintings, novels, and illustrations in Europe. These shaped the imaginations of people all over the world. Much of it can be traced back to the baptism of Florence, and to those anonymous artists who worked here in the thirteenth century, determined to give them hell.