Giovanni di Paolo, Paradise, 1445, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Since yesterday, nothing drastic has happened – and so I give you a vision of Paradise, the rabbits, more numerous since the days of Adam and Eve, still nibbling peaceably at the grass. I don’t know about you, but back in the middle of March I can remember the last couple of friends I bumped into, or arranged to meet, in London, and not knowing how to greet them. There were a couple of awkward, slightly distanced hugs, and then a couple of bows… and then I was whisked away to Durham, and I’ve been here more or less ever since. Soon the demands of work will drag me back down to London, and soon we will be able to meet up with friends again. I know we can meet some, at a distance, already. But when will we start making physical contact? When will we shake hands, or hug, or kiss, and will it be one cheek or two? And will it look anything like Giovanni di Paolo’s Paradise?
Here we are at the end of time, and the resurrection of the body has brought these people together for the first time in centuries, if not millennia – for who knows when it will be? The people are spread across the surface like a medieval tapestry, with a screen of golden trees against a clear blue sky defining the limit of the garden, which is verdant, and growing with over-sized flowers. People meet in couples, or, in one case, a threesome, dressed to the nines, or with the humility of monastic orders. A large number of the men wear black and white, the habit of the Order of Preachers, better known as the Dominicans – which is the first clue about this painting: it was probably made for a Dominican church.
Some of the characters can even be identified. The two Dominicans greeting each other in the middle here – they’ve gone for the slightly distanced embrace – are none other than St Dominic himself, founder of the order, and St Peter Martyr. It’s a tiny detail, but there is a splash of red – blood – on the head of the man on the right. St Peter, a friend and follower of St Dominic, was killed when heretics attacked him in the woods outside Milan, hacking into his head with a knife. To the right we have St Anthony Abbot and two Dominican nuns. Now, you must forgive me if I can’t help thinking that Giovanni di Paolo, the strange and original genius of the Sienese Renaissance, wasn’t always being entirely straight laced. After all, what exactly are these three doing? It looks to me as if St Anthony is actually pushing the middle nun away – and that her companion is trying to hold her back. Seeing as one of the stories in which artists could exercise most fantasy was The Temptation of St Anthony, would I be wrong in suggesting that here temptation has been offered yet again, and, as ever, the good Saint has sailed through the test with flying colours (to mix my transport metaphors). To the left of the detail, we have the fashionable youth of the afterlife – men in their must-have red tights (like Tobias, in Picture Of The Day 4), including one with a chaperon (the fashionable headgear often seen in paintings by van Eyck), and two women in the same dress (houppelandes) – though fortunately, not the same colour. Imagine the embarrassment – all eternity in the same outfit! What becomes apparent quite quickly, though, is that Paradise is not for the poor.
There are more identifiable figures in the arc of characters spanning the middle of the painting. The Dominican on the left, who has a little bird whispering in his ear, was, in his life, inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is something that would usually identify St Gregory the Great, but he was a Pope – so this can’t be Gregory. As a Dominican it must be the Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni, revered in Siena, even though he never made it into the canon of the Saints. There is clearly a good team dealing with hospitality in Paradise, as no one is left to themselves. Anyone who might have been more – heremitic, shall we say? – during their life has been greeted by an angel. Sansedoni certainly is, and so is the Pope, further to the right (sadly we don’t know which one this is). The two angels frame St Augustine, who is meeting his mother, St Monica, for the first time since she passed away in Ostia, as they were heading off to Africa. I hesitate to discuss the relationship between the cardinal, in his scarlet robes, and the extremely fashionable blonde boy in his spotless white hose, in case I say something that is entirely irrelevant to the painting.
The deer wandering into the garden at the top left tells us that the man in white is St Giles – it ran to him while being hunted, and the poor Saint was rewarded with an arrow in the leg. But it was a sign that St Giles was, during his lifetime, already closer to Paradise than the rest of us, as the animals were not afraid of him. It is for the same reason that the rabbits sit so peacefully, and do not scamper away: in Paradise everything is at peace. It is only the sinful they need fear. The other anonymous couples greet with differing degrees of intimacy, from holding wrists at arm’s length to full on hugging. There are even two – a monk and a merchant I’d say, towards the top right – whose greeting would now be interpreted as ‘namaste’ – with the hands joined in prayer, and a slight nod. I tried it a couple of times, but I’m not sure it was me. And then, in the top right corner, a young man and an angel, hand in hand, are going for a walk beyond the frame. But don’t be fooled – they are not leaving the picture, it’s just that the picture has left them. A golden glow emanates from behind the angel’s head and in front of the hem of his skirt. It emerges from behind the black cloak and white robe of another Dominican, who has been cut off, ultimately, if not in his prime. Although this now looks like the edge of the painting, it wasn’t: the panel was cut down at some point, and the golden frame painted all round the surviving section to disguise the fact.
Originally these two panels – yesterday’s and today’s – belonged together, and would have been adjacent like this. I don’t have access to the full conservation history, so I don’t know if they were originally on the same plank of wood, or on separate sections. Nevertheless, the conception of ‘Paradise’ is the same in each, a flowery meadow screened off from the blue sky by a row of golden trees. In the second panel Paradise is more extensive, because there is nothing else to show – there is no need to include the four rivers, or, for that matter, the rest of the cosmos. It does make the trees look further away. They are smaller, after all, although on the whole Giovanni isn’t too worried about perspective: the people at the top are more or less the same size as the people at the bottom, one of the features that gives the ‘tapestry-like’ appearance. The trees are also painted in the same way, with gold leaf applied over the paint, much of which has worn off in the Paradise panel. But even together, this was not the full extent of the painting.
This is a reconstruction of the known remaining elements of the Guelfi Altarpiece, painted for the Church of San Domenico in Siena. The main panels have found their way to the Uffizi in Florence, and are signed and dated 1445. In the centre, as so often in Italy, are the Madonna and Child. They are flanked by Sts Peter and Paul, with Sts Dominic and Thomas Aquinas (another Dominican) on the outside. As it happens, the name is inaccurate – the polyptych was originally painted for a chapel dedicated to St Dominic, hence his inclusion in the main part of the altarpiece. Only later was it moved to the Guelfi Chapel, which was dedicated to St Anthony. If you want to know more about its origins, the Met catalogue entry is available online. The altarpiece was still intact, and already in the Guelfi Chapel, in 1649, when it was described in detail. The structure is a common one, with the upper elements of the altarpiece supported by a wooden box, which helps to stabilise the heavy wooden panels on which the Saints are painted. But, as an extra surface, this box could also decorated with a strip of paintings, known as the predella. The 1649 account described the predella as illustrating the Last Judgement, the Flood, and the Creation of the World. You might think that the last of these is the only bit that survives, but Paradise was originally part of the Last Judgement – however, for whatever reason (wet rot, dry rot, woodworm, theft or fire – there are always candles on an altar), most of it has been lost. However, we are lucky that Giovanni di Paolo regularly repeated compositions with which he was happy. Here is another predella panel, now in the Pinacoteca in Siena, which he painted for an unidentified polyptych.
The depiction of Paradise on the left is similar, if broader, to today’s picture – and you can see that the top right of it does lead into the golden light of heaven, as the glow behind the hand-holding angel suggests it would. We also see the resurrection of the body in the centre, with souls being ushered into Paradise on the left (at Jesus’s right hand, POTD 38), and thrust into hell on the right. Given that our painting should have been accompanied by The Flood, we must assume that this missing scene would have been on the far right, balancing The Expulsion from Paradise. Thematically they are linked: Adam and Eve are created, but fall, and are expelled. As a result mankind is sinful – so bad in fact that God decides to scrap the human race and start again, with Noah and Mrs Noah (POTD 37) as the new Adam and Eve. It’s such a pity that this does not survive – but at least we have these two gems. And, I suspect, because they have been separated from their original setting, they actually get far more attention than they would have done as part of a larger ensemble – they work almost better on their own. I’m sure that’s not true of all of us though – and I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in person soon!