Illustrations to the Third Canticle of Dante’s Epic: Part 1
These collages for Paradiso are among the very small group of Dante illustrations that go beyond representing the text in pictures, to carry on a dialogue with it, responding, reacting and commenting on Dante and his cosmos. Until now, Rauschenberg’s Inferno series, and the Blake watercolors for the Comedy, were the only works that ventured to meet as equals Italia’s glowering bard. To explain such daring, one may note that one of them was an antinomian mystic and the other a Texan.
Meryl Gross is a humorist, best known for her Tumblr blog Elsie Schrotthaufen’s Book of Wonders. She has a special faculty of laughter, an anarchic and uniquely American sense of play, familiar from the Marx brothers, Robert Crumb and Buster Keaton, and which one might trace all the way back to the Tall Tale tradition of the frontier. Meryl Gross’ hilarity has enabled her to understand the essential wittiness of Paradiso, and rise above the centuried reverence which can make even Dante seem dull. I could not have hoped for a more intelligent and visionary illustrator for my Paradiso translation thnt Meryl Gross: she completed the renewal of this poem for the twenty-first century.
The Sphere of Fire
When Dante first leaves earth on his journey to heaven, he passes through the Sphere of Fire. In medieval cosmology, the four elements determined the center of the physical universe. First came earth, upon which lay the seas, then air provided the atmosphere, after which came fire, the lightest of the elements.
Beatrice is represented by the bird whose colors blend into those of the flames. The bird indicates her ability to fly between the levels of existence. That this is indeed Beatrice is confirmed by the sign-language letter B.
In the course of this initial ascent, Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmic spheres and their spiritual logic, represented here by the gears within the white circle.
The cosmic spheres, which rotate one
within the next, turning ever towards You
who are their highest desire, O God —
those round revolving skies now made me look up,
drawn by their harmony: the music of the spheres.
Each one vibrates its own perfect tone
and all accord in a melody
of heavenly resonance.
When I raised my gaze, allured by the music,
it seemed to me the whole sky was afire.
Within this clockwork representation of the spheres, whose music is audible to Dante, we see male and female milagro votive charms. These are Dante and Beatrice, while the angel between them indicates their ascent through the successive heavens, underlining the symbolism of the bird.
The Sphere of the Moon
In canto three we enter the sphere of the moon, which is the station of those who strove for holiness, without however fully achieving it. When Dante first arrives here, and sees the souls peering out at him, their pale faces barely visible against the moon’s silvery surface, he thinks they are reflections and turns around to look for the actual figures.
The face in the mirror, looking delightedly up at the stars, suggests the aspiration of the lunar souls who were not equal to their vows. The mirror hints that their aspirations remained mere imaginings, shadows without substance. The soul looking excitedly at the stars also suggests Dante’s realization
. . . at last I understood
how every place in heaven is perfect paradise . . .
The will of all heavenly souls is perfectly aligned with God’s, so they would not even wish to be in some higher heaven.
Gross has the blissful pair Dante and Beatrice at bottom, standing in a little cloud that suggests the pearly haze of Dante’s lunar world.
The red leopard patterns which energize the edges of the image, may suggest a trace of the passions these souls felt in life, which led to their less than stellar spiritual achievement. According to Dior, leopard prints in women’s fashion suggest a sophisticated sensuality; as such they add a note of feminine eros to the otherwise cool blue scene. Beatrice herself is a kind of celestial dominatrix in Dante: her entry at the end of Purgatorio, and Dante’s definition of Love in canto twenty-six of Paradiso, suggest Swinburne as much as they do Thomas Aquinas.
The daytime moon in the upper right hand corner is another of Gross’s characteristically puckish touches.
Passing over the sphere of Mercury, the heaven of those who sought honor and distinction, Gross turned her attention to the third of the spheres, Venus, the heaven of those who greatly loved. At center we have Cunizza da Romano, sister of the infamous Ezzelino da Roman, who was sort of the Vlad the Impaler of medieval Italy. Cunizza distinguished herself in romantic rather than sanguinary involvements, running through a number of husbands, and running off with a number of lovers, before she ended her days in Florence, aged and well behaved. To the left is the harlot Rahab, the prostitute who concealed, and so saved the lives of, Joshua’s spies who’d come to reconnoiter Jericho.
Dante was surprisingly modern in his sympathy for those who “loved greatly.” Homosexuals are half of those among the saved on the topmost round of Purgatory. These two ladies of pleasure, Cunizza and Rahab, were in Dante’s opinion winners in the moral beauty contest, “runway” models who flew to their reward on high. The sweetness of love’s heaven is rendered with sly overstatement by the bag of sugar. Considering who these characters are, and the tenderly indistinct background, I can’t help thinking of lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103,”
Pure? What does it mean?
. . . I, love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
The “pink things” in this pastel heaven prove to be, on careful inspection, “My Little Ponies.”
Cunizza, being a Christian, gets a golden halo, made with mild sarcasm from a doily. Rahab, a middle easterner, has clothing of a somewhat more exotic pattern, and sports a feather boa. While this accessory has been around since the early 19th century, we nowadays associate it with flappers and Mae West, so it is well suited to Rahab’s glamour. Rahab gazes up at Cunizza’s halo, clearly wondering how she would look in one of those, in a genial allusion to the tension between the worlds of the Old and New Testament which Dante successfully combined in what fashion people would call “an aggressive mix.”
We have now soared as far as the sphere of the sun. Movement among the heavens is at the speed of thought, which is assuredly greater than that of light, and the convertible, rendered celestial by its starry diamond, well suggests the exhilaration Dante describes. The focus of the image is a metaphor from the end of canto ten: Dante, watching the souls of the great philosophers, who appear as round animate glowing spheres, circling about him like choreographed comets, offers this comparison
Like a clock whose nestled, intricate gears
turn together in their hidden closeness,
each urging its mate to roll towards it,
wheel within wheel, delicately meshing—
when the whole mechanism is tensely engaged,
Ting! Ting! Ting!
comes the sudden chime
of sweet release,
a shrill and silver cry . . .
With such celestial clockwork motion
did the circling spirits wheel about precisely,
gleaming gears in a machinery of joy,
sounding the hour of eternity . . .
The Honeywell Thermostat, Henry Dreyfus’ masterpiece of industrial design, is a parade example of technology at one with beauty, the marriage, as it were, of physics and metaphysics. This golden round is the paradigm that motivates the rest of the wheeling instruments, it extends a spiritual hand to steer the stars. The souls of the philosophers are the colored shiny eyes of pure awareness, and that is Beatrice, with crown and sash, leading Dante ‘s spiritual progress, which takes place above and parallel to his physical interstellar journey.
Then all around the double singing ring
of shimmering spirits
a new luminosity was born,
like the brightness along the whole horizon at dawn.
for now further angelic beings clearly appeared,
circling the first two coronas of souls.
They made a round surrounding
break-out of starry lights,
a vast flashing
chrysanthemum of splendors,
more than eye could bear,
a sky-wide glittering
outburst of the Holy Spirit.
I turned to Beatrice. She smiled,
so newly beautiful
it was more than my mind could fathom then
or tongue can now express.
The visit to the heaven of the sun ends with a dance of those stars which are the souls of the philosophers. These are rendered in four different though complementary ways, giving us an insight into Gross’s method. Her signature technique is the deployment of images in a literary way, as metaphors, and even as puns. Her imagination succeeds in being visual and verbal and conceptual all at once This is particularly appropriate for illustrating a poetic text like Dante’s. He describes the heavenly souls variously as flames, gems, flowers, lamps, and so on, heaping up harmonies of sound, sense and symbol.
With Dantean alternation, Gross shows the souls as a partial arc of shiny five-pointed stars, of the type a grade school teacher would put on a good homework assignment—one’s first foretaste of a heavenly reward. The colored disks, though startling in their abstraction, are actually the images that follow Dante’s physical description of the souls most exactly. He makes them glowing, intelligent spheres of disembodied brightness, changing color according to their mood. The marbled paper Gross has cut these from gives them a cloudy or starry look that visually aligns them with their heavenly context. One of them is a sliced tomato, which alludes to Dante’s comment
I turned to Beatrice. She smiled,
so newly beautiful . . .
In keeping with Gross’s characteristic glee, this is graphic slang. From the thirties to the sixties, “tomato” was an informal term for a good-looking woman. Gross’s witty image is slipped in as an aside, a conspiratorial visual whisper.
The cherub-borne horn of plenty is a stellar emblem: the horn of the constellation Capricorn is the mythological cornucopia. Here it pours out soap bubbles, echoing the pearls that Beatrice displays in token of her role as Dante’s guide among the stars.
Gross’s use of metaphoric soap-bubbles for the shining weightless souls makes me think of those well-known lines from Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, which could serve as a comment on Gross’s aesthetic in general:
” . . .it seems to me that butterflies and soap bubbles and everything in the human world that most resembles these, know most about happiness. To see these light, foolish, delicate, sensitive little souls fluttering—that seduces Zarathustra to tears and song. I would only believe in a god who knew how to dance.”
After the sun, Dante enters the sphere of Mars, the heaven of those who fought for the faith, where he meets the soul of his ancestor Cacciaguida. Cacciaguida reminisces about the Florence of his day, and laments the city’s present degenerate state.
Gross has used New York as a metaphor for Florence, the romantic New York of the mid twentieth century, glamorous in the lunar blue light of memory, lunar — because the moon is an emblem of change, as in Dante’s lines here
even cities pass their prime,
decay away. All that men build
dies in time, same as those that made it.
This simple truth stays hidden from us
in things that last a few years longer
than our momentary lives.
Just as the moon, controlling the tides,
ceaselessly covers and bares the shore,
Fortune causes Florence to rise up high
only to sink her again.
Growing up in Queens in the sixties, Gross knew a Manhattan that was the center of the world, a city whose bygone high life is suggested by the raised champagne glass at lower left. In the upper right a red planet reminds us that this scene of urban nostalgia takes place in the sphere of Mars.
That is of course Beatrice at lower right. The mood of nostalgia is strengthened by the two tiny faces in their circles, looking like photos of one’s immigrant ancestors, and the two Diane Arbus-like girls suggest all the sadness of photographs—which are the autumn leaves of visual recollection. The blue spheric heads on the twin girls identify them as redeemed souls native to this landscape.