One of the most splendid rooms in Florence is the Spanish Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. In the 16th century it became a chapel and burial place for the Spanish courtiers who accompanied Eleanora of Toledo the wife of Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici. It was originally built in the early 14th century as a chapter hall for the Dominican monks who lived in Santa Maria Novella, a church made splendid by the lavish spending of the Strozzi and Rucellai banking dynasties. The spectacular fresco cycle was begun in the year of the Black Death, 1348, and finished in 1355. It is the only known work of this otherwise forgotten artist, now thought to be from Siena.
This room is an iconologist's paradise. It is one magnificent learned allegory after another. I'm sure the monks were thrilled with it. They could spend hours looking at the cycle stringing the symbolic analogies together one after the other.
And that is all to the point. The Dominican Order is a preaching order for the propagation of church doctrine and the defeat of heresy. The most famous of the allegories, The Church Militant and Triumphant makes that very clear. It is a pictorial Dominican mission statement.
The Church Militant on Earth (symbolized by a vision of the as yet unfinished and undomed Florence Cathedral) is lead by Pope and Emperor with assembled representatives of the various classes at their feet. A group of sheep rests at the feet of the Pope to drive home the pastoral meaning. To the bottom right, St. Dominic unleashes the "Hounds of the Lord" (Domini Canes, a Latin pun, how delicious!), the black and white dogs who attack the wolves and foxes of heresy and infidelity. To the right of Dominic, St. Peter Martyr calmly rebuts the arguments of an angry group of heretics. Furtherest to the right, St. Thomas Aquinas persuades the pagans and unbelievers to discard their creeds for the One True Faith.
Above the whole fresco is another in the ceiling vault of a subject known in Italy as the Navicella, the story of Christ walking across the water to meet the Apostles on a storm tossed boat, here clearly meant to be understood as a metaphor for the Church.
The section above Dominic, Peter, and Thomas is the Way of Salvation Through Penitence. A group of elegant young Florentines dances and enjoys their young lives as the young have always done, beneath enthroned personifications of sin and licentiousness (Luxury, Pride, Lust, and Sloth). This is the part of the painting where I've always wondered where the artist's sympathies really lay. None of those lovely boys and girls appear to be doing anything particularly wicked, at least by our standards. Penitents who forsake the wanton ways of the world receive absolution from a Dominican priest, and are guided by St. Dominic to the Gates of Paradise where a solemn St. Peter welcomes them to the great High School Honors Society in the sky presided over by Christ of the Last Judgement.
On the opposite wall is an elaborate allegory glorifying St. Thomas Aquinas with personifications of the Virtues (3 celestial and 4 earthly), and of the 7 Liberal Arts and 7 Useful Arts, etc., etc., etc. Thomas sits enthroned in the center with defeated Arius, Nestor, and Averoes weeping at his feet. The Faith Once Revealed to All the Saints indeed!
I wonder what Aquinas would have thought. I can't imagine that he would be pleased with this.
This whole magnificent cycle reflects the conservative reaction and hardening of doctrinal orthodoxy that followed in the wake of the Black Death. It is a vision for those charged with policing that orthodoxy (the Dominicans even look like Church Police). I doubt tribunals of the Inquisition ever took place here, but it would be a perfect setting for such. The Dominicans were responsible for inquiries into heretical beliefs and teaching, and for rooting them out.
As an inhabitant of a much more cosmopolitan world than the one that produced this fresco cycle, I applaud the artist and feel a shudder of revulsion. Unlike the angry cranks who probably look at this fresco cycle and pine longingly for a lost world of certainty (if it was all so certain, then why were Dominicans around to police it?), I like living in this strange new world where peoples who once never heard of each other, now live next to each other. I like this world where people talk freely across sectarian, national, tribal, and ideological boundaries that were once rigidly separated and policed. I think the unstoppable conversation between religions and with secularism is ultimately for the good of all humanity, despite its painful hardships. I'm not interested in any one world culture, still less any one world religion. But, that a world full of local distinctions now converses and interacts, breeding all sorts of hybrids I think makes for a richer fuller life for us all, and for a more peaceful world.
If that fresco cycle is what Christianity is all about, then I want no part of it.