Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1592)

JOHN FAUSTUS: All things that move between the quiet poles
Shall be at my command: emperors and kings
Are but obeyèd in their several provinces;
But his dominion that exceeds in this
Stretcheth as far as doth the mind of man;

Title and provenance

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

Date Written: c. 1589-1592.

Source: In 1587 a version of the story of Doctor John Faustus was published in Frankfurt-on-Main, in German. Soon after – a 1592 edition is the earliest one extant – an anonymous English translation, containing modifications and additions, was published in England, under the title The Historie of the damnable life of Doctor John Faustus. It is clear from the numerous similarities in plot, episodes and even language that the History was Marlowe’s primary source for his play.

Doctor Faustus exists in two versions: the 1604 (‘A’ text) quarto is shorter; a second, longer version was published in 1616 (the ‘B’ text). Which one is more ‘authentic’ has been exercising Marlowe scholars for four hundred years. The editor of the New Mermaid edition – Roma Gill – thinks the shorter A version likely to be purer Marlowe, and the later B version includes additions by other writers. This is a review of the 1616 ‘B’, long version, as found on the ElizabethanDrama.org website.

Executive Summary

The famous theologian Doctor John Faustus is spiritually unfulfilled with his chosen vocation, teaching and debating at the university in Wittenberg. He reviews all existing forms of human learning, dismissing them one by one as trash, fit only for small minds. He decides occult knowledge and magic is the only thing for him and the climax of part one is when he conjures a devil, an agent of Satan, Mephistopheles, and signs a contract with him, which gives Faustus the gift of sorcery and the secrets of the universe for 24 years, in exchange for his eternal soul.

Then there’s the middle bit where Faustus takes advantage of his magical powers, flying into space in a chariot drawn by dragons, an extended farce scene poking fun at the pope, before the most famous scene where he conjures up the most beautiful woman in all human history, Helen of Troy, with the words: ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships…’ Different printed editions of the play give different scenes demonstrating how Faustus uses his powers.

In the final part of this moralising fairy tale Mephistopheles returns and demands Faustus’s soul and, after a lot of pleading, Faustus is dragged down to hell. So let that be a lesson to you, children: Do NOT sign away your soul to the devil, no matter how tempting the short-term offer. ‘What must you not do, Johnny?’ ‘I must no sign my soul away to the devil, miss.’ ‘Good boy, Johnny.’

The play

Prologue

Consciously rejects the grand locations and warlike deeds of his earlier plays (Dido, Tamburlaine and the Jew of Malta) for something more intimate. The prologue introduces Dr John Faustus with a potted biography of his birth, upbringing and education at Wittenberg, where he soon excels in theology.

Till swoln with cunning of a self-conceit,
His waxen wings did mount above his reach,
And, melting, heavens conspired his overthrow;
For, falling to a devilish exercise
And glutted now with learning’s golden gifts,
He surfeits upon cursèd necromancy;
Nothing so sweet as magic is to him,
Which he prefers before his chiefest bliss:
And this the man that in his study sits.

This is very slick and professional, to take us from nothing to having a good grasp of Faustus’s character and biography in just 27 lines before the prologue indicates the scene with his hand, and the play opens. Very impressive.

Act 1

Dr Johann Faustus is sitting in his study reviewing books of learning, the law, medicine, politics, and dismisses them all as superficial trash:

Philosophy is odious and obscure;
Both law and physic are for petty wits;
‘Tis magic, magic, that hath ravished me

Here, right at the start of the play a Good Angel and a Bad Angel appear to Faustus, respectively encouraging him, and telling him not to, study magic. Faustus summons two fellow students of the dark arts who have, apparently, helped him, Valdes and Cornelius. To all these characters, Marlowe allots his trademark booming verse, packed with soaring ambition, studded with stunning images of luxury and power, imagining what it will be like when they have total magical control:

VALDES: As Indian Moors obey their Spanish lords,
So shall the spirits of every element
Be always serviceable to us three;
Like lions shall they guard us when we please;
Like Almain rutters with their horsemen’s staves,
Or Lapland giants, trotting by our sides;
Sometimes like women, or unwedded maids,
Shadowing more beauty in their airy brows
Than has the white breasts of the queen of love:
From Venice shall they drag huge argosies,
And from America the golden fleece
That yearly stuffs old Philip’s treasury;

Faustus gets excited at the images of power and luxury his friends conjure up, and he invites them for dinner and to plan how to practice magic.

Scene 2 Street outside Faustus’s house Two scholars enter and ask Faustus’s servant, Wagner, where his master is. The scene is padded out with comic material, namely that Wagner has picked up scraps of rhetoric and logic and so teases the two scholars by proving their arguments illogical or wrongly formed etc. Eventually he spits out that his master is at dinner with Valdes and Cornelius and the two scholars go away, sad, and tutting and shaking their heads, because that pair have a bad reputation for the dark arts.

Scene 3 A grove This is the scene where Faustus, alone in a grove in the countryside, has drawn a circle and written into it various magical symbols and now recites a Latin spell, there is a crack of thunder, and a devil appears, Mephistopheles. Although he should be terrifying, he proceeds to explain the processes and procedures of devils in relatively bureaucratic terms: when they hear anyone abjure Christ, God and the Scriptures a devil will come speeding, hoping to win a soul.

Faustus’s superficiality, the lack of understanding behind all his fine reading, is amply demonstrated. He says he agrees with the ancient philosophers in thinking hell a children’s fable, of confounding heaven and hell. When Mephistopheles tries to explain that hell isn’t a world of punishments, it is deprivation of the boundless soul-filling job of being in heaven, Faustus mocks him and tells him to ‘learn of Faustus manly fortitude’. In other words, it is plain for everyone in the audience to see that Faustus is not only a blasphemer and infidel, he us stupid when it comes to the only thing in life which matters.

It is Faustus who boastfully makes the offer, telling Mephistopheles to go and tell his master, mighty Lucifer:

FAUSTUS: Say he surrenders up to him his soul,
So he will spare him four and twenty years,
Letting him live in all voluptuousness,
Having thee ever to attend on me,
To give me whatsoever I shall ask,
To tell me whatsoever I demand,
To slay mine enemies, and to aid my friends,
And always be obedient to my will.

You can see how this kind of megalomaniac over-reaching is first cousin to Tamburlaine’s heaven-vaulting ambition, and Faustus’s ambitions are cast in very similar terms:

By him I’ll be great emperor of the world,
And make a bridge thorough the moving air,
To pass the ocean with a band of men;
I’ll join the hills that bind the Afric shore,
And make that country continent to Spain,
And both contributary to my crown.
The Emperor shall not live but by my leave,
Nor any potentate of Germany.
Now that I have obtained what I desired.

Scene 4 A comic scene with Wagner the servant (who speaks in servant prose) who encounter a ‘clown’ or beggar in the street and raises two devils to terrify the clown into serving him (Wagner).

Wagner can raise devils? This scene, in fact all the scenes with Wagner and some of the banter between Faustus and Mephistopheles has a raggedy comedy about it. T.S. Eliot described The Jew of Malta as ‘a savage farce’ and Faustus also has farcical elements, as if Marlowe can’t take his own story seriously.

Scene 5 Faustus’s study He listens to the arguments of the good and bad angel, but is resolved for bad, He realises:

The god thou serv’st is thine own appetite,

And yet he is determined to do it. He argues back against the good angel, and then – it being midnight – conjures Mephistopheles. The devil tells him to stab his arm to draw the blood to sign his pact with great Lucifer.

But something genuinely spooky happens. As Faustus tries to write, his blood keeps congealing, preventing him from continuing to sign away his soul. Mephistopheles hurries offstage and returns with a chafer of flame which they use to prevent Faustus’s blood congealing, and he finishes writing out the contract. But then appears on his arm the words Homo fuge, Latin for ‘man, flee!’ Faustus is momentarily panic-stricken, but Mephistopheles magics up a dancing troupe of devils to distract him. Thus reassured (or dazzled) Faustus reads out the contract he has drawn up: Mephistopheles will be his to command for 24 years to carry out his every wish, and then:

I, John Faustus of Wittenberg, Doctor, by these presents, do give both body and soul to Lucifer, Prince of the East, and his minister Mephistophilis; and furthermore grant unto them, that, four-and-twenty years being expired, and these articles above written being inviolate, full power to fetch or carry the said John Faustus, body and soul, flesh and blood, into their habitation wheresoever.

Mephistopheles again double checks that Faustus is entering into the contract of his own free will. This is important for the very legal pernicketiness which characterises Christian theology. Faustus affirms it. Now commences his 24 years of fun.

Faustus asks Mephisopheles about hell and the latter gives a famous and profound description:

Hell hath no limits, nor is circumscribed
In one self place, for where we are is hell,
And where hell is, there must we ever be.

Hell is the absence of God and of God’s grace which is what saves and redeems humans. It is not so much a place, as a condition we carry round with us. Hence Mephistopheles’ earlier declaration:

Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it:
Think’st thou that I, that saw the face of God
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being deprived of everlasting bliss?

Once again Faustus shows his idiocy by saying he doesn’t believe hell exists, it’s an old wives’ tale. Nonetheless, Mephistopheles says he’ll bring him the most beautiful women in the world, each morning, fresh to his bed. And Mephistopheles gives him a book full of magic spells.

Scene 6 Some time later, in Faustus’s house, he accuses Mephistopheles of misleading him, of looking up at the stars and the beautiful heaven he will never see. Mephistopheles tries to talk him round, the two angels appear and the bad won triumphs, hardening Faustus’s heart. Incidentally, there’s an indication of what the pair have been up to:

Have not I made blind Homer sing to me
Of Alexander’s love and Oenon’s death?
And hath not he, that built the walls of Thebes
With ravishing sound of his melodious harp,
Made music with my Mephistophilis?

He quizzes him about the nature of the solar system, the planets and the stars, which knowledge Mephistopheles rattles off but when Faustus asks him who made it all the devil literally cannot bring himself to utter the word God.

When the good angel prompts Faustus to try to repent he is visited by Lucifer and Beelzebub. They tell him not to think on heaven or call on God. To distract him they summon up an allegorical masque of the seven deadly sins. Faustus loves the show and Lucifer gives him a parting gift of a book of magic before exiting.

Scene 7 A comic scene between Robin and Dick, two ostlers or staff at an inn who have got their hands on one of Faustus’s books and appear to be thinking of using it to gain magical powers.

Chorus 1 The chorus describes how Faustus rode a chariot pulled by dragons out into the solar system to behold the planets in their motion. Returned to earth after 8 days, he is now riding a dragon across its surface and will soon arrive at Rome.

Scene 8 Faustus and Mephistopheles review the tour they’ve made through France, Germany and down into Italy. Faustus is loving it:

Whilst I am here on earth, let me be cloyed
With all things that delight the heart of man:
My four-and-twenty years of liberty
I’ll spend in pleasure and in dalliance…

Now they hide in order to watch the annual Festival of St Peter inside the palace of the Pope. A procession enters, the striking part of which is that a ruler named Bruno is in chains, and the Pope orders him to go on all fours so as to act as a footstool for him (the Pope) to ascend his throne.

This Bruno is a fictitious ‘anti-pope’, a role which arose in the 14th century when two different popes were elected for a period of fifty years, who opposed and anathematised each other. But there was never an anti-pope named Bruno, just as the pope in these scenes is referred to as Adrian and depicted as an enemy of the Holy Roman Emperor, whereas the one and only pope named Adrian (the only Englishman to have been pope) ruled from 1154 to 1159 and was an ally of the Holy Roman Emperor. Similarly, the scene features a King Sigismund of Hungary and there has never been a King Sigismund of Hungary. In other words, these names are just handy labels for a scene of broad farce. Similarly, the scene

Faustus and Mephistopheles watch all this then disguise themselves as cardinals of France and Padua in order to give the pope their theological opinion that the antipope Bruno should immediately be burned at the stake and the Emperor excommunicated. The pope hands Bruno over to our disguised pair to carry out the sentence.

Scene 9 The pope’s privy chamber The pope is holding a feast for king Sigismund and his cardinals. Faustus reveals that he and Mephistopheles have magically transported Bruno safely back to Germany. The two real cardinals of France and Padua enter and are perplexed when the pope asks how their imprisoning and punishment of Bruno is going; both deny any knowledge although, of course, the pope’s entire court swears they saw it happen. So the cardinals are dragged off to prison and punishment.

Faustus gets Mephistopheles to say a spell (interesting to compare these spells with the same sort of thing Shakespeare used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) to make him invisible and proceeds to wreak havoc, whispering insults in the pope’s ear, as if from his neighbour, whisking away the pope’s plates and goblet of wine, etc, eventually slapping the pope. Concluding some evil spirit is loose among them, the pope calls in some friars who solemnly chant magic spells, er, prayers, until Faustus and Mephistopheles set about them, too, beating them and throwing fireworks at them as they run away.

Pantomime.

Scene 10 Street near an inn Back to the serving men Robin and Dick. The vintner accuses them of stealing a cup from the inn. Rather over-reacting, Robin uses Faustus’s book to read and spell and conjure up Mephistopheles. As punishment for dragging him away from more important work, Mephistopheles transforms them into a dog and an ape, who promptly bark and bounce around the stage. Panto.

Scene 11 Court of the Holy Roman Emperor at Innsbruck Two servants, Frederick and Martino, explain that Faustus has arrived at the Emperor’s court, having magically transported Bruno to Germany, and has promised to show the emperor all his historical antecedents.

Scene 12 The emperors ‘presence chamber’ The emperor formally greets Faustus and thanks him for rescuing Bruno, the German anti-pope. Faustus then presents a dumb show in which we all see the figure of Alexander the Great confront and defeat the Persian emperor Darius before setting the latter’s crown on the head of his paramour. The emperor is mightily impressed, though he has to be restrained by Faustus from embracing the dumbshow Alexander.

One of the emperor’s courtiers is a drunken nitwit named Benvolio, and as a result of saying he doesn’t believe in Faustus’s powers, the latter gives him the horns of a stag. Everyone laughs then Faustus menaces him with setting a pack of devils to tear him to pieces as Diana’s hounds tore Actaeon to pieces. The emperor intercedes and so Faustus relents and removes Benvolio’s horns. This is comedy, farce – but what strikes me is the use of classical myth to articulate it. The Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Scene 13 A grove near Innsbruck In revenge for his humiliation, Benvolio organises an ambush with Frederick and Martino and, when Faustus comes along, they stab him, knock him to the ground and then chop off his head! They exult over his corpse but are terrified when the headless body gets to its feet. He cannot be killed. Now he conjures up Mephistopheles and two other devils to drag the three conspirators off to dump them in mud and drag them through thornbushes and throw them off steep rocks to break their bones, and they all exit, screaming.

That’s not all. Some soldiers had been included in the assassination attempt and when they now come forward to attack Faustus, the latter conjures up Mephistopheles and other devils in the guise of an army with drums and fife who march against the soldiers and chase them offstage with fireworks.

Scene 14 Show what became of the three conspirators Benvolio, Frederick and Marino, now covered in mud, scratched and bruised and,.. with stags horns on their heads! They conclude there is nothing they can do against such magic and will retreat to Benvolio’s castle, there to live in retirement till their shame has passed.

Scene 15 A convoluted comic scene in which a horse-courser or dealer begs Faustus to sell him his magic horse, which he finally does for 40 dollars but tells the man not to ride it into water. Barely 30 seconds have passed and Faustus has just gone to bed, before the dealer returns to say he did ride the horse into water and it disappeared leaving just a straw behind. Now the dealer goes to pull Faustus out of bed but his leg comes off in his hand, Faustus wakes up shouting Murder, murder’, and the dealer runs off. Faustus’s leg is magically restored (just as his head was in scene 13) and  his servant tells him the Duke of Vanholt wishes to see him.

Scene 16 Robin, Dick, the horse-courser, and a carter are down the pub sharing their reasons for hating Faustus.

Scene 17 The Court of the Duke of Vanholt The Duke thanks Faustus for building him a castle in the air. His wife, the duchess, is pregnant and expresses a fancy for grapes. Although it is midwinter, Faustus dispatches Mephistopheles who returns a few seconds later with a spray of wonderful fresh grapes.

The Duke and Duchess are still marvelling at this when there is a load of rowdy banging at the gate. It is Robin, Dick, the carter, and the horse-courser. They’re drunk, insult Faustus and demand more beer! Faustus asks the duke to indulge him and calls for more beer. This scene takes up an inordinate space, in which the horse dealer drunkenly asks whether Faustus can remember having his leg pulled off, Faustus says yes, the dealer asks where it is, Faustus replies, back here with me, and so on. Presumably the Elizabethan audience found all this very funny.

All four begin to accuse Faustus with their grievances but one by one he strikes them dumb, last of all the hostess who’s come to ask for her bill to be paid, and they exit like zombies. The duke and duchess are very amused.

Scene 18 Back at Faustus’s, Wagner enters to tell us his master is preparing to die, has given Wagner:

his wealth,
His house, his goods, and store of golden plate,
Besides two thousand ducats ready-coined.

Then we see Faustus at dinner with two scholars. They have been discussing who was the most beautiful woman in the world (as wise and learned scholars will, after a few beers) and decided it must be Helen of Troy. Faustus promptly gets Mephistopheles to lead her in, in a dumbshow of the same style as the one where Faustus conjured up Alexander the Great. They are immensely impressed and gratified, thank Faustus and leave.

The tone completely changes as an old man enters and warns Faustus, at length, to save his soul. Faustus is stricken with remorse and tries to repent but Mephistopheles turns savage, accuses him of breaking the bargain, and warns him he will tear his flesh in piecemeal.

Faustus is so terrified he instantly promises to renew his vow, and Mephistopheles hands him a dagger so he can cut his arm and renew the contract in his own blood and then, vengefully, orders Mephistopheles to torment the good old man who just visited him. Faustus asks for just one thing – that he may possess Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world they saw a few minutes ago, to distract him from his vow.

Re-enter Helen, passing over the stage between two Cupids which prompts the famous lines:

FAUSTUS: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? −
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
[He kisses her]
Her lips suck forth my soul: see, where it flies! −
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.

What strikes me now about this speech is, again, the way it is drenched in references to Greek myth, and references Troy, Paris, Achilles, Jupiter, Semele and Arethusa.

Scene 19 in which Faustus pays his debt and is dragged down to hell With a crack of thunder Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Mephistophilis enter Faustus’s study. Separately, Faustus finalises his will with Wagner, gifting him all his belongings. Then the scholars visit and Faustus laments and regrets his life of sin, his promise and the threat of eternal damnation.

A scholar tells him to turn to God but the devils hold his tongue, dry his tears, pull down his hands so he cannot pray. Then he for the first time tells them the full story, of how he sold his soul to the devil for 24 years of partying, Horrified, the three scholars retire into the next room.

Now Mephistopheles closes in on him, admitting it was he who drew his taste to books of magic, closed up the books of divinity and steered Faustus’s soul to damnation. The good angel and bad angel appear, the good one showing him the throne in heaven Faustus would have been awarded, the bad one explaining now he will be dragged down to hell and hell appears to be a pretty bad place. Mephistopheles shows it to him:

EVIL ANGEL: Now, Faustus, let thine eyes with horror stare
Into that vast perpetual torture-house.
There are the furies tossing damnèd souls
On burning forks; their bodies boil in lead;
There are live quarters broiling on the coals,
That ne’er can die; this ever-burning chair
Is for o’er-tortured souls to rest them in;
These that are fed with sops of flaming fire,
Were gluttons, and loved only delicates,
And laughed to see the poor starve at their gates:
But yet all these are nothing; thou shalt see
Ten thousand tortures that more horrid be.

It is noticeable how traditional this image is, and how different from the much more subtle, psychological definition of hell (as the absence of God which all damned people carry around within themselves wherever they go) which Mephistopheles expressed at the start of the play. Too subtle for the climax of a tragedy, which requires blood and guts and screaming, or as much garish suffering as possible. And hence the reversion to a traditional fire and pitchforks interpretation here at the play’s climax.

The clock chimes eleven. He has an hour left and delivers a blisteringly intense speech of terrified desperation:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.
O, I’ll leap up to my God! − Who pulls me down? −
See, see, where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!
One drop would save my soul, half a drop: ah, my Christ! −

The clock ticks relentlessly forward and then strikes midnight. There isn’t, as you might have expected, a big set-piece scene featuring Lucifer, Beelzebub et all gloatingly seizing him. Instead Faustus’s final moments are brief and brutal as a pack of devils enter and drag Faustus offstage as he screams his final lines:

O mercy, Heaven! look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books! − O Mephistophilis!

Even reading this I found genuinely harrowing. Well acted onstage it can be terrifying.

Scene 20 There is a short, half-page-long scene as the three scholars cowering next door, go into Faustus’s study and discover his body all torn to pieces, and recount the terrible screams they heard. Well, they’ll gather up his body and give him a fine funeral at which all the students of the university will wear black.

Chorus 2 Brief and to the point:

Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight,
And burnèd is Apollo’s laurel bough,
That sometime grew within this learnèd man.
Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall,
Whose fiendful fortune may exhort the wise,
Only to wonder at unlawful things,
Whose deepness doth entice such forward wits
To practise more than heavenly power permits.

Thoughts

A divided text Clearly there are two completely different types or tones of content sitting cheek-by-jowl in this strange uneven text: the genuinely tragical and sometimes very moving, and the farcical, panto content. Most scholars and indeed readers and audiences can easily see that the comic scenes were almost certainly not written by Marlowe. Marlowe’s humour, as demonstrated in The Jew of Malta, is stylish, cynical and savage. Much of the humour in Faustus’s comic scenes (pulling Faustus’s leg off, cutting his head off, four churls getting drunk down the pub) is just stupid.

Endless theology There’s enough theological issues or problems in the play – the precise status of the good and bad angel, the extent of Faustus’s free will, whether God’s grace could save him up to the last minute – to keep serious-minded scholars in academic papers for the rest of time. After all, Marlowe was himself a scholarship-winning student of divinity at Cambridge and Roma Gill’s introduction informs us that Mephistopheles’ subtle vision of hell as exclusion from the bliss of salvation is in fact closely translated from a text by the 4th century Church Father, Saint John Chrysostom.

Dazzling escapades For us ordinary folk, though, it’s useful to make a list of Faustus’s various escapades: that he rides through the solar system in a chariot pulled by dragons (!), rides across Europe on the back of a dragon, gets to slap the pope and chase friars with fireworks, and that Mephistopheles changes two servants into an ape and a dog. He creates a masque featuring Alexander the Great and builds a castle in the air and, by implication, has Homer sing to him, and has sex with Helen of Troy. On the farcical end of the scale, he sells a horse dealer a horse which is in fact a straw, gives a drunken knight real stags’ horns, survives having his head cut off and his leg pulled off, and strikes four noisy chavs dumb.

Clever critics have pointed out that Faustus’s escapades mark stages on his degeneration: he starts out hymning the infinite power of the mind, associating with Homer and travelling the solar system, before degenerating into a court entertainer for the Duke of Vanholt, calling up historical masques and magicking up fresh grapes, before he becomes involved in the downright stupid escapades involving lost heads and legs and, in the final scenes, wishes to cease having a body altogether, to be buried in the earth or to become as incorporeal as the dew, so as to escape the torments of hell.

It’s a neat idea, but ignores the actual order of some of the adventures, not least that the best one – kissing Helen of Troy – happens at the end. But it does tie together all the adventures and bring out the often tawdry and banal nature of what people actually get when their dreams are fulfilled.

Marlowe’s Greek imagination Shakespeare litters his plays with references to English folklore, dialect words and imagery (the names and symbolism of English flowers, for example). There’s nothing like that in Marlowe. In Marlowe almost every analogy or metaphor references Greek myths or legends. From the masque of Alexander the Great early on through the apparition of Helen of Troy at its climax, through to the best line in the short epilogue mentioning Apollo, and via hundreds of other references, the Greek myths and legends dominate Marlowe’s imagination from start to finish.

Campus tragedy Dr Faustus is a tragedy about an academic. It is a tragedy about the overweening pride which comes from being very learnèd and superior, ‘glutted with learning’s golden gifts… swollen with cunning of a self-conceit’, as the prologue puts it – but lacking wisdom or morality.

In a way, it is a tragedy about the perils of over-education. There’s a modern genre called the campus novel or campus comedy, dating from Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim and characterising many of David Lodge’s novels. The presence of the three scholars right at the climax of the play highlights the fact that, all the way through, Dr Faustus is a campus tragedy.

Dr Faustus as Marlowe’s psychodrama

Marlowe studied Divinity at university, but also read widely in Latin classical literature. The quote from St John Chrysostom indicates how deeply he knew his theology, and a glance at any of the poems or plays shows how drenched his imagination was in the Greek myths and legends.

It isn’t the most obvious thing about the play, but Dr Faustus can be read as a dramatised debate between these two halves of Marlowe’s education, between the two major cultural traditions of Europe, Christian belief and the enormous cultural heritage of the classical world.

On the whole Faustus’s vision of power and the infinite reach of the human imagination are expressed through metaphors and references to Greek myth – the downsides, the price to pay for overweening ambition, the limits of the purely human, are expressed in theological terms. Man can aspire to the marvellous – but at the end of the day, he is a creature, created by a Creator, to whom he owes an infinite debt.

Obviously this tension is openly expressed throughout the play, most narrowly in the debates between the good and evil angel, or in the warnings of the old man, who wanders in off the street to tell Faustus to repent. It is encoded in the imagery of the play, in the two contrasting sets of symbols and images, one pagan, one Christian.

But you can argue that the debate, the conflict of value systems, comes to a symbolic climax in the figure of Helen of Troy, and her appearance just before Faustus is dragged offstage by the devils.

Helen is maybe the most famous figure from all Greek myth, an image of worldly beauty, of sensual bliss who also epitomises the appeal and attraction of classical culture, and by extension, the world of the Imagination, with its promise of intellectual reward, emotional comfort and psychological reassurance. How many thousands of artists and millions of art-lovers find consolation in turning from the banal, dirty, frail and disappointing realities of the world, to open a book and enter a wonderful world of imaginative consolation.

And yet… Helen has been conjured by a devil. The entire thing is a deception. She is not real, the pleasure she brings is not real. When Faustus says:

Her lips sucks forth my soul: see, where it flies! −

There is a clear and very obvious ambiguity in the line. It is simultaneously a lover’s expression of sensual bliss, the kind of erotic hyperbole common to Renaissance poets and their heirs – but at the same time has a diabolical and theological meaning. The devil who made or is impersonating Helen really is sucking out his soul. The Helen Faustus and the audience sees is a gorgeous mask over a death’s-head skull.

And so, along with being a storming theatrical entertainment, and a satire on the entire notion of the over-ambitious Renaissance Man – Dr Faustus can also be read as dramatising the tensions in Marlowe’s divided mind between the two central traditions of European thought, which he was expert in, which saturated his thinking, and which he never managed to reconcile in his short life.


Related links

Marlowe’s works

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse (1927)

A wolf of the Steppes that had lost its way and strayed into the towns and the life of the herd, a more striking image could not be found for his shy loneliness, his savagery, his restlessness, his homesickness, his homelessness. (Steppenwolf, page 22)

Brief summary

Part one Steppenwolf was Hesse’s tenth novel. It starts in a fairly low-key, realistic style and for the first hundred or so pages is an extended exercise in self-pity, as the self-described ‘Steppenwolf’ dwells at length on his unhappiness, his broken marriage, his abandonment, loneliness and social isolation.

Part two However, about half way through the book he meets a woman, Hermine, a fun-loving dancer and courtesan at a popular local bar, and she completely turns his life around. Hermine introduces him to dancing and jazz music, providing him with a wonderfully sensuous lover (Maria) who reveals the hitherto unsuspected glories of sexual pleasure, and introducing him to a super-relaxed jazz player (Pablo), who smiles wisely, says little, and offers a variety of recreational drugs, including cocaine.

Part three And then, in the final forty pages or so, the book turns into a really delirious sequence of fantasy scenes, played out in THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”), where each doorway opens into a new, extravagant, hallucinatory scenario.

The Magic Theatre almost certainly doesn’t exist because the sequence introducing it begins with Pablo, Hermine and the narrator sitting round in a room, after a long night dancing the night away at the town’s annual ball, drinking some of Pablo’s drug-spiked liquor and smoking drug-spiked cigarettes.

After an extraordinary series of fantasies (which include taking part in ‘the war against the machines’; reliving all the love affairs of his entire life but which, this time, are all positive, life-enhancing experiences; and meeting Mozart, who delivers a lecture about eternity and time) the novel ends without the narrative returning us to the ‘normal’ world.

One of the fantasy scenes involved our hero meeting a man sitting on the floor behind an immense chess board with many more squares than usual. This player prompts the Steppenwolf to take out of his pockets not just the two sides of his personality, but the hundreds and hundreds of aspects which Goethe and Mozart and Hermine and all the other wisdom figures in the novel have told him about. The player then arranges these avatars onto his board and plays a complex game with them. Moral: Life is just a game, it’s up to you how you play it.

And that is how the novel ends – not with the character returning sober and hungover to the ordinary, mundane reality it started in; it ends with the Steppenwolf taking up all these multiple aspects of his life, and determined ‘to begin the game afresh’, to live life in the light of everything he’s learned.

And it is this final, mad whirligig of fantasy stories – deeply mixed up with themes and ideas from the rest of the novel about suicide, death pacts, love, sex, the meaning of life, the multiple aspects of the human mind and so on – which, I think, leave a powerful, indeed bewildering impression on the reader’s mind, and whose garish extremity completely eclipses the mundane, realistic opening half of the novel.

You put it down feeling genuinely inspired, thinking, Wow, all these other lives are possible – sex and love and drugs and jazz and dancing and multiple ways of seeing not only the world, but your own life and experience – it’s all there waiting for you ‘to begin the game afresh’.

On the word ‘Steppenwolf’

The use of the single word ‘Steppenwolf’ in the English title makes it sound like a name (with distant echoes, for those of us of a certain age, of the English rock band which called itself Steppenwolf, and whose big hit was, appropriately enough, ‘Born To be Wild’).

But the title in German is The Steppenwolf, which makes it clear that the title doesn’t refer to one person’s proper name, but to a type of animal. In fact, Der Steppenwolf is German for ‘the Steppe Wolf’, also known as the Caspian Wolf, a distinct species of wolf which inhabits the steppes of southern Russia and the Caucasus.

Moreover, although the central character refers to himself as ‘the Steppenwolf’, the treatise about Steppenwolves embedded in the first part of the novel states quite clearly that there are thousands of Steppenwolves i.e. men who consider themselves part-sociable man, part-lonely, haunted wolf.

Part one – Steppenwolf’s self-pity

1. The nephew’s account

The thirty-page introduction is written in a muted, sober, naturalistic style by an unnamed youngish man. The nephew’s aunt rents out furnished rooms and one day, a few years earlier, a scruffy, nervous, 50-year-old man with short cropped hair (p.7) presents himself as a lodger. Against her nephew’s advice, the aunt lets out a bedroom and a living room to this stranger.

Over the first thirty or so pages, this nephew shares with us his impressions of the new lodger, whose name is Harry Haller. Haller refers to himself in conversation so often as ‘the Steppenwolf, that the narrator ends up using that name as well.

The nephew describes various encounters with the Steppenwolf, within his aunt’s house and sometimes in the local town, as he slowly forms an opinion about him. This is that Haller is a rebel. He doesn’t have a job but appears to have independent income. He drinks heavily and keeps anti-social hours (goes to bed late, gets up late). His bedroom is full of bottles of booze, but also of books by fashionably earnest and intense writers such as Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, as well as photos from magazines and watercolour paintings which he himself paints.

The nephew comes to think of the Steppenwolf as a man torn between two extremes – sometimes a savage, angry, ironic loner; but at other times a perfectly sociable and civilised man, who the nephew bumps into attending a classical concert. He is defined by this tearing dichotomy in his soul.

One day the Steppenwolf packs his bags and goes. The nephew and aunt never hear from him again. But he leaves behind a manuscript diary, a sort of journal, and it is this manuscript which makes up the rest of the book, about 220 pages in my Penguin edition.

2. Harry Haller’s manuscript

The bulk of the book consists of this manuscript written by its protagonist, a middle-aged man named Harry Haller, which he leaves to the nephew when he leaves the house, and which the nephew finds himself arranging for publication and writing a short introduction to.

Broadly speaking, as described above, this manuscript is in two parts:

  1. Part one – Haller wanders the town feeling inconsolably sorry for himself
  2. Part two – Haller meets life-affirming Hermine who takes him on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery

In the first half, what comes over at great length is that the Steppenwolf is a loner, an outsider, a man who thinks his mind was made for great heights, for great achievements, who looks down on ‘ordinary’ people and the complacent comforts of the bourgeois middle classes, a man whose penetrating gaze has pierced to the heart of the human condition, no less:

The Steppenwolf’s look pierced our whole epoch, its whole overwrought activity, the whole surge and strife, the whole vanity, the whole superficial play of a shallow, opinionated intellectuality. And alas! the look went still deeper, went far below the faults, defects and hopelessness of our time, our intellect, our culture alone. It went right to the heart of all humanity, it bespoke eloquently in a single second the whole despair of a thinker, of one who knew the full worth and meaning of man’s life. It said: “See what monkeys we are! Look, such is man!” and at once all renown, all intelligence, all the attainments of the spirit, all progress towards the sublime, the great and the enduring in man fell away and became a monkey’s trick!

This is from the nephew’s account and shows the nephew falling under the Steppenwolf’s sway, and tending to see the world through the eyes of this super-clever but super-sad loner.

Yet the Steppenwolf is a conflicted man, a man of two halves, for the outcast loner also desperately yearns for all the little bourgeois comforts. He loves the tidy potted plants on the landings of the trim little boarding house, and the clean hallways, and venerates Mozart.

The Steppenwolf’s curse is that whichever mood he’s in – over-educated angst-ridden loner or polite, music-loving bourgeois – the other half of his personality consistently sabotages it. He can never be at rest.

This basic duality, and the Steppenwolf’s inability to settle his curse of being permanently at war with himself, recurs again and again, both in the nephew’s introduction and in the main text:

I saw that Haller was a genius of suffering and that in the meaning of many sayings of Nietzsche he had created within himself with positive genius a boundless and frightful capacity for pain. I saw at the same time that the root of his pessimism was not world-contempt but self-contempt; for however mercilessly he might annihilate institutions and persons in his talk he never spared himself. It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

You can see why this kind of book would be a Bible to troubled teenagers and students. It perfectly captures that sense of being special, exceptional, blessed with superior wisdom and insight, of living a:

lonely, loveless, hunted, and thoroughly disorderly existence

And despising your comfortably bourgeois parents, poor drones who’ve never read Dostoyevsky or Nietzsche. Whereas you, the special soul who responds to Hesse’s book, have read the entire ‘How to be a tortured existentialist’ reading list, and so are blessed to wake up every morning feeling like a wild wanderer over the wide world, scorned of men and rejected by society.

And yet, and yet… deep down… at the same time… you don’t really want to leave home, where your mum can be relied on to do your washing and ironing and cooking and cleaning, and where there’s a nice hot meal every evening at teatime.

As Harry himself puts it:

‘But though I am a shabby old Steppenwolf, still I’m the son of a mother, and my mother too was a middle-class man’s wife and raised plants and took care to have her house and home as clean and neat and tidy as ever she could make it. All that is brought back to me by this breath of turpentine and by the araucaria, and so I sit down here every now and again; and I look into this quiet little garden of order and rejoice that such things still are.’ (p.20)

The two eras theory and ‘the sickness of our times’

The text is packed with sweeping generalisations about human nature and society, which read well but are of questionable practical use. Typical is a passage where Haller tells the nephew his theory about overlapping ages.

It interested me not because I think it’s true, but because something very like this idea of people tragically caught between two changing eras and marooned between two changing value systems underlies Hermann Broch’s immense trilogy of novels, The Sleepwalkers.

‘A man of the Middle Ages would detest the whole mode of our present-day life as something far more than horrible, far more than barbarous. Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and ugliness; accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap. A man of the Classical Age who had to live in medieval times would suffocate miserably just as a savage does in the midst of our civilisation. Now there are times when a whole generation is caught in this way between two ages, two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security, no simple acquiescence. Naturally, every one does not feel this equally strongly. A nature such as Nietzsche’s had to suffer our present ills more than a generation in advance. What he had to go through alone and misunderstood, thousands suffer today.’

I think this is questionable as a theory of history or historical change or historical eras. But where it is a little useful is as indirect evidence of just how widespread the feeling was in Weimar Germany that society’s values had collapsed:

a whole generation is caught…between two modes of life, with the consequence that it loses all power to understand itself and has no standard, no security

This isn’t the only time the text confidently expands Haller’s feelings of confusion and unhappiness and projects them onto the whole world:

I see [Haller’s manuscript] as a document of the times, for Haller’s sickness of the soul, as I now know, is not the eccentricity of a single individual, but the sickness of the times themselves, the neurosis of that generation to which Haller belongs, a sickness, it seems, that by no means attacks the weak and worthless only but, rather, precisely those who are strongest in spirit and richest in gifts.

These records, however much or however little of real life may lie at the back of them, are not an attempt to disguise or to palliate this widespread sickness of our times. They are an attempt to present the sickness itself in its actual manifestation. They mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other, to give battle to chaos, and to suffer torture to the full. (p.27)

Ah, but it is hard to find this track of the divine in the midst of this life we lead, in this besotted humdrum age of spiritual blindness, with its architecture, its business, its politics, its men!

This kind of rhetoric sounds good, sounds wonderful if you’re of this kind of mindset, but means almost nothing.

Which generation has not been afflicted by a sense of collapse and confusion? We know this way of thinking was widespread among ancient Greek and Roman writers (‘O tempora, o mores’, meaning ‘Oh what times! Oh what customs!’  lamented the Roman orator Cicero in 70 BC). Anyone familiar with Anglo-Saxon or Norse literature knows that its characteristic genre is the elegy, a sense of irremediable loss of once glorious standards and values. The Middle Ages repeated these laments for a golden age, and any generation afflicted with plague (throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance and into the early modern period) thought itself especially damned, especially punished for its sinfulness and moral laxity.

If you pick up any of the Victorian novelists or thinkers you will find them packed with laments for the collapse of civilised values (Thomas Carlyle was a leading offender, his 1829 essay Signs of The Times lamented ‘an artificial Morality, an artificial Wisdom, an artificial Society’), and most of the other Victorians lamented living in the sick world of frenetic activity which they find themselves plunged into.

In other words, this mood of lament for ‘the sickness of our times’ is one of the most consistent tropes in all Western literature, right up to and including the present day, with social media awash with laments that Donald Trump is the worst leader anywhere, ever, and the world is experiencing unprecedented horrors.

1. Actual corruption On one level the accusation is, of course, true. The grown-up, adult world is, once you’ve seen something of it, chaotic, confused and corrupt. It’s just that it’s always has been so, and young bookish men, raised on the beautifully clear and lucid works of the philosophers and poets, always end up disgusted to discover just how far short of those wonderful, inspiring works the actual world of marketing and business deals falls. The times are sick and corrupt. Thing is, they always have been.

2. Freudian interpretation Freud makes it simpler. He says everyone who thinks and writes like that is grieving for the lost certitudes of childhood, the warmth and simplicity of the nursery, when mummy and daddy protected you, and maintained a world of infant certainties, all gone, while you mope and moan about the sickness of the times.

3. A psychological interpretation And there is a third way of looking at this time-honoured trope, which is that it really boils down to saying that your times are special and that, as a result, you, the writer, and you, the reader who is aware enough to realise just how sick the times are, well, you also are special – blessed with a superior mind and perceptions but cursed, oh alackaday, to live through such a sick and chaotic era.

The hidden ‘appeal to specialness’ explains why these kinds of passages start off being about this generation or society as a whole, but have a tendency then to focus in on specially sensitive and wise individuals who are set against ‘the sickness of the times’, wise and sensitive souls who are doomed to suffer, precisely because they are so spiritual and superior and wise and noble.

You can see this tendency in the first passage I quoted which starts out lamenting whole epochs in history, and the collapse of values in our time, before moving on to worship an exception – a hero who stands out against it – in this case, Nietzsche, portrayed as an especially sensitive and prophetic soul.

And praise of Nietzsche leads, by an easy transition, into the idea that everyone who reads Nietzsche – reads and really understands Nietzsche – people like you and me dear reader, the elect, the elite, the special ones, that we are especially sensitive, what spiritual souls we are, that we, too are also condemned to suffer, suffer awfully, because of our special and superior sensitivity.

I am in truth the Steppenwolf that I often call myself; that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him. (p.39)

We – you and me and Nietzsche and the Steppenwolf – are not like ‘normal’ people, ‘ordinary’ people, ‘little’ people, those uninformed, ignorant, narrow-minded philistines who are happy with our fallen age, content in these sick times, quite at home in our degraded society and its paltry pleasures, those little people who, sadly, do not share our superior insights and sensitivity, and whose silly superficial pleasures we cannot lower ourselves to understand. The Steppenwolf is not slow to skewer the little people:

Among the common run of men there are many of little personality and stamped with no deep impress of fate…

I cannot understand what pleasures and joys they are that drive people to the overcrowded railways and hotels, into the packed cafés with the suffocating and oppressive music, to the Bars and variety entertainments, to World Exhibitions, to the Corsos. I cannot understand nor share these joys…

At every other step were placards and posters with their various attractions, Ladies’ Orchestra, Variété, Cinema, Ball. But none of these was for me. They were for ‘everybody’, for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance…

It has always been so and always will be. Time and the world, money and power belong to the small people and the shallow people. To the rest, to the real men belongs nothing. Nothing but death…

There is much more in this vein, written in a very persuasive melodramatic style. All in all, the first half of the novel is a kind of handbook for troubled teenagers.

But to the older reader, there is also something broadly comic about this self-dramatising, self-pitying, late-Romantic pose. And it is indeed very, very Romantic – Hesse’s phraseology is often drenched in unashamed romanticism which wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1830s or the fin-de-siecle 1890s:

How I used to love the dark, sad evenings of late autumn and winter, how eagerly I imbibed their moods of loneliness and melancholy when wrapped in my cloak I strode for half the night through rain and storm, through the leafless winter landscape, lonely enough then too, but full of deep joy, and full of poetry which later I wrote down by candlelight sitting on the edge of my bed! All that was past now. The cup was emptied and would never be filled again. (p.37)

It is as helpless and self-pitying as Shelley.

Treatise on the Steppenwolf (p.51-80)

Only twenty or so pages into what purports to be Harry Haller’s manuscript, he describes following a mysterious street-seller in the midnight streets of the unnamed town where all this takes place, a man who turns and hurriedly stuffs into Harry’s hands a little book, then is gone.

When Haller looks, he sees it is A Treatise on the Steppenwolf – Not For Everyone. (Note the ‘Not For Everyone’ – here as throughout the first half of the book, the implication is that only the special ones, the sensitive ones, the élite, those who know care allowed to share these sensitivie feelings and insights.)

This turns out to be another description of Harry Haller, but presented as if written by some kind of omniscient authority, almost a naturalist. it is, in effect, the third text about him (after the nephew’s description and Harry’s own memoir) and one of the interests of the book is this multi-textuality or multi-dimensionality i.e. the differing perspectives given by a) the nephew’s account b) Haller’s manuscript c) the Treatise, and then d) the mad fantasia at the end.

The Treatise repeats the ideas of the previous sections, that the Steppenwolf is half-beast, half-man, but of a specially superior lofty type. He is explicitly compared with the greatest artists of the ages. He looks down on ordinary, ‘normal’ people.

The Steppenwolf stood entirely outside the world of convention, since he had neither family life nor social ambitions. He felt himself to be single and alone, whether as a queer fellow and a hermit in poor health, or as a person removed from the common run of men by the prerogative of talents that had something of genius in them. Deliberately, he looked down upon the ordinary man and was proud that he was not one. (p.62)

Again and again his individuality and his independence are emphasised, and we know from all his writings that these are the core values which Hesse valued:

With this was bound up his need for loneliness and independence. There was never a man with a deeper and more passionate craving for independence than he…

He was ever more independent. He took orders from no man and ordered his ways to suit no man. Independently and alone, he decided what to do and to leave undone. For every strong man attains to that which a genuine impulse bids him seek…

Overuse of the word ‘hell’

All the characters are too free and easy in describing their self-centred depression as ‘hell’. Having nursed a parent with dementia, and then cared for children with mental health issues, I now know that even when I’m feeling depressed or guilty myself, it is very very very far from ‘hell’, and nothing compared to what they were going through.

Thus I couldn’t help despising the nephew and then the Steppenwolf for throwing around this serious word so glibly, for cheapening it:

  • These records… mean, literally, a journey through hell, a sometimes fearful, sometimes courageous journey through the chaos of a world whose souls dwell in darkness, a journey undertaken with the determination to go through hell from one end to the other [no they don’t]
  • Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap…
  • Haller belongs to those who have been caught between two ages, who are outside of all security and simple acquiescence. He belongs to those whose fate it is to live the whole riddle of human destiny heightened to the pitch of a personal torture, a personal hell.
  • He who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today
  • Despising the bourgeoisie, and yet belonging to it, they add to its strength and glory; for in the last resort they have to share their beliefs in order to live. The lives of these infinitely numerous persons [the Steppenwolves] make no claim to the tragic; but they live under an evil star in a quite considerable affliction; and in this hell their talents ripen and bear fruit
  • And supposing the Steppenwolf were to succeed, and he has gifts and resources in plenty, in decocting this magic draught in the sultry mazes of his hell, his rescue would be assured.
  • And every occasion when a mask was torn off, an ideal broken, was preceded by this hateful vacancy and stillness, this deathly constriction and loneliness and unrelatedness, this waste and empty hell of lovelessness and despair, such as I had now to pass through once more.
  • How had this paralysis crept over me so slowly and furtively, this hatred against myself and everybody, this deep-seated anger and obstruction of all feelings, this filthy hell of emptiness and despair.
  • And since it appeared that I could not bear my loneliness any longer either, since my own company had become so unspeakably hateful and nauseous, since I struggled for breath in a vacuum and suffocated in hell, what way out was left me? There was none.
  • Then the world would be a desert once more, one day as dreary and worthless as the last, and the deathly stillness and wretchedness would surround me once more on all sides with no way out from this hell of silence except the razor.

Silly man.

The rebel

In this constant sense of being an outsider, Steppenwolf has a lot in common with the writings of Albert Camus, who wrote his classic novel, The Outsider fifteen years later (and mention of Camus makes you realise he is situated smack in the middle of the tradition of literary ‘outsiders’ which flourished, more on the Continent than in England, which would include Kierkegaard and Nitzsche, just for starters.)

According to the Treatise, the numerous ‘outsiders’ of which the Steppenwolf is merely one, play a vital role in maintaining the boring bourgeois world of law and order, as explained in this typically convoluted paragraph:

The vital force of the bourgeoisie resides by no means in the qualities of its normal members, but in those of its extremely numerous “outsiders” who by virtue of the extensiveness and elasticity of its ideals it can embrace. There is always a large number of strong and wild natures who share the life of the fold. Our Steppenwolf, Harry, is a characteristic example. He who is developed far beyond the level possible to the bourgeois, he who knows the bliss of meditation no less than the gloomy joys of hatred and self-hatred, he who despises law, virtue and common sense, is nevertheless captive to the bourgeoisie and cannot escape it. And so all through the mass of the real bourgeoisie are interposed numerous layers of humanity, many thousands of lives and minds, every one of whom, it is true, would have outgrown it and have obeyed the call to unconditioned life, were they not fastened to it by sentiments of their childhood and infected for the most part with its less intense life; and so they are kept lingering, obedient and bound by obligation and service. (p.65)

It’s eloquent, isn’t it? Eloquent and articulate and very readable and plausible and yet, in my opinion, not particularly useful.

I thought of Camus because as well as this hymn to The Outsider, the Treatise also contains an extended section about Suicide and suicides and the suicide mentality (pp.58-59).

According to the Treatise, ‘suicides’ are not defined by the act itself, but by a sensibility for whom suicide is always a realistic option. They have to fight against it as the kleptomanic fights against his urge to steal everything. the thought of suicide is a constant companion and way out which pops up every time the ‘suicide-minded are blocked, frustrated, embarrassed or humiliated.

Compare and contrast Camus’ lengthy essay about suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). It’s not the specific of the ideas, it’s the fact that both writers thought it worthwhile devoting extensive though to the subject which is revealing.

The final section of the Treatise berates Harry for being so simple-minded as to think man is made up of just two souls, in his case wolf and man. Man is made up of thousands of parts and pieces, man is a kaleidoscope of confused and clashing wishes, dreams, desires, intentions, plans, moods and memories and emotions.

The author of the Treatise closes by dwelling at some length on Eastern philosophy and Buddhism for indicating the complex nature of the human soul, and how hard it is to fully own and possess it in order to transcend it and encompass the All.

Back to sad Harry

Then the Treatise ends and it’s back to sad Harry.

Granting that I had in the course of all my painful transmutations made some invisible and unaccountable gain, I had had to pay dearly for it; and at every turn my life was harsher, more difficult, lonely and perilous.

Things happen:

  • Harry wanders round town feeling sorry for himself
  • he bumps into an old acquaintance, a professor of Eastern philosophy, who invites him for dinner that evening at 8.30pm, throwing him into paroxysms and anxiety and self-loathing and, sure enough, he makes a horlicks of it by getting into an argument about a portrait of Goethe the professor and his wife have which our hero thinks is too sentimental
  • Harry storms out of their house and wanders the streets, as usual giving into thoughts of shame and guilt and suicide, eventually plunging into a noisy smoky inn
  • here he sits next to a fancy women (a prostitute?) who quickly gets his measure, within a few minutes she realises that Harry is a helpless baby who needs to be looked after, who needs mothering, who has memorised his Nietzsche and is an expert on despair and hell and inauthenticity, but doesn’t know how to talk to a girl or dance, who knows, in fact, nothing about actual life
  • Harry falls asleep at the pub table and dreams a dream of Goethe, who starts off lofty and admirable but slowly becomes more fanciful and jokey, the medal on his chest turning into flowers as he explains that one must escape time, time is an illusion, in heaven eternity is a brief moment just long enough to tell a joke (reminding the reader of the reflections about time in Siddhartha)

After a week of anxiety worthy of a 16-year-old on his first date, having washed and dressed in new finery (new shoelaces!) he returns to the Black Eagle pub and meets the pretty flirtatious slender young girl there.

For a moment she reminds him of his boyhood friend Herman and he hazards a guess that her name is Hermine, the female equivalent. She nods delightedly but who knows, she is an experienced prostitute, maybe she’s lying.

[Rereading The New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic 1918-33 ed. Stephanie Barron and Sabine Eckmann (2015), I was struck by the way all the essays in it at least mention, if not make their central theme the issue of gender-bending, gender alterity and gender fluidity in Weimar Germany. the book includes numerous photos and paintings of women, especially, dressed in men’s clothing, or with slender boyish figures and bob haircuts, all of which I was reminded of in the short moment when Hermine reminds Harry of a boy. He even asks if she’s a boy, and she jokes that, yes, she might be a boy in woman’s clothing (p.127). And a lot later, towards the climax of the book, at the big town ball, Hermine arrives dressed as a man, in a gentleman’s smart suit and fools even Harry into thinking she’s a male.]

Part two – Hermine

It isn’t formally divided into a new part but in practice, from the moment he meets Hermine, the book takes on a steadily different tone. In a nutshell, Hermine teaches Harry in a hundred and one ways to stop being so self-pitying and self-centred, to come out of himself, to engage with the world, to lighten up, to live a little (the variety of phrases which spring to mind indicate how widespread this injunction has become in the English-speaking world).

Almost immediately Hermine realises that despite all his fancy learning Harry is basically a child. He needs to be mothered. I thought I’d been reasonably clever in spotting this within a page or so but she then goes on to make it super-explicit quite a few times, telling him he’s a baby and needs a mother and she’s going to mother him. She makes him swear he will obey her in all things, so there’s an echo of the mistress-slave relationship in the world of S&M, or BDSM as it’s called nowadays.

Hermine teaches Harry to dance and like jazz. Characteristically, Harry initially hates both and nurses a long-standing dislike of jazz, and is ready at the drop of a hat to pontificate about the greatness of Bach and Handel and Mozart.

[Jazz] was repugnant to me… It was the music of decline. There must have been such music in Rome under the later emperors. Compared with Bach and Mozart and real music it was, naturally, a miserable affair; but so was all our art, all our thought, all our makeshift culture in comparison with real culture…

(In an interesting footnote, Hesse makes his character dislike Beethoven and really dislike both Brahms and Wagner: by their time music had, in his opinion, become too clotted and heavy; he prefers the infinite lightness and grace of Mozart).

Anyway, this is where the saxophonist Pablo comes in. ‘A dark and good-looking youth of Spanish or South American origin’, Pablo is effortlessly cool, rarely speaks but, when the band has finished playing a set comes and sits with Hermine and Harry and listens in silence while Harry rants on about Bach and tonal colour and harmonies.

Finally Pablo breaks his silence and reveals that he knows all about Bach and counterpoint but that is not his job. He is paid to play music which makes people tap their toes, and then their legs, and get to their feet, and start dancing, and lose their inhibitions and be happy.

The text tells us that ‘A new dance, a fox trot, with the title “Yearning,” had swept the world that winter’. Here it is. This is what these wild characters are jitterbugging to, getting drunk, taking cocaine, clasping each other tightly and dancing the night away to:

Hermine may become Harry’s mistress, but she doesn’t have sex with him. That, she says, is reserved for a special day, when he has finally completely fallen in love with her. Meanwhile, Hermine fits Harry up with a gorgeous dancer at the club, Maria, sleek and sexy in her velvet dress. With her Harry rediscovers not just sex – he had sex with his wife – but a magnificent new world of sex, of all kinds of subtle sensualities, of looks and poses and aspects and ways of touching and kissing which are completely new to him.

In other words, his body is brought to life just as much as his soul. The Steppenwolf rediscovers the radical innocence of sex (p.183-4).

The book continues to be packed with ideas and issues except that now he is not mulling them over in isolation and stewing in self-pity. He gets to discuss them with Hermine, with Pablo and with Maria, all of whom shed interesting and unexpected lights on the Steppenwolf’s obsessions. Thus there is:

War An extended discussion about war – we learn that the Steppenwolf was a writer and wrote an article during the Great War calling for moderation and less hatred, and was roundly condemned by conservatives and militarists and subjected to a campaign of hate and vilification. We know from his biography that exactly the same thing happened to Hesse himself, in fact this is straight autobiography. Harry is full of foreboding that all part of sciety – politicians, journalists, business – are greedily galloping towards the next war, which will be far worse than the last. Very prophetic. In fact Hesse left Germany to live in Switzerland precisely because he was a pacifist and wanted to dissociate himself from his countrymen’s crude militarism and lust for revenge. (pp.228ff)

German intellectuals There is a damning page where Harry harshly criticises the entire German intellectual class for their ineffectiveness. (p.159)

Weimar sexuality At their very first meeting, Hermine strikes him for a moment for her boyishness, and this theme recurs for the rest of the book. At the Town Ball Hermine arrives dressed as a man. But at one of the druggy sessions with Pablo and Hermine, Harry feels someone kiss his closed eyelids and knows it’s Pablo and doesn’t mind. In fact Pablo stonedly suggests a threesome, explaining how wonderful it would be, but Harry can’t quite bring himself to go that far. On one of the occasions when Harry discusses Maria with Hermine, Hermine makes it quite clear that she knows Maria is exceptional in bed because… she’s slept with her too. You can almost feel Harry’s mind being expanded. This is an aspect of Hesse I whole-heartedly approve, his completely relaxed, candid and honest attitude to sexuality. It seems extraordinarily ahead of his time, the 1920s. Then again, it was the Weimar Republic, where anything went. (Hesse on Weimar women p.162, and bisexuality p.194, 196.)

Time and eternity For me the best thing about Siddhartha was the profound discussion of time, what it means to be trapped in time, as we all are, and what it might mean to be able to escape time. What life, or existence, would feel like if there was no time. This theme is picked up here again, and is, for me at any rate, a particularly thought-provoking aspect of Hesse’s philosophy.

Part three – The Magic Theatre

As described in my brief summary, the book processes through these successive awakening of Harry’s narcissistic and self-pitying soul – jazz, sex, dancing, flirting, sensuality, relaxing, stopping being aloof but plunging into life – before heading towards the giddy climax of the Magic Theatre.

Harry attends the annual Town Ball in the town hall which has been converted into a catacomb of entertainments, with different bands playing in different rooms. This epic night of dancing and debauchery is vividly describe, it sounds almost like a rave, he makes it sound like London nightclubs I used to go to, where you dance all night long and eventually lose yourself completely in the throng, in the great mass of pulsing bodies, leave your poor pitiful ego behind and join a larger rhythm and music.

Anyway, as dawn comes up and the last of the dancers finally stop shimmying and the band packs away its instruments, Pablo takes Harry and Hermine to a small drab room where he feeds them spiked booze and a jazz cigarette and then… takes them through a doorway and parts a plush curtain to present THE MAGIC THEATRE (“For Madmen Only; Admittance Charge – Your Mind”). It is like the curved corridor which runs behind the private boxes at a grand theatre, except that each door has a motto on it, indicating what you will experience inside, a little like Alice in Wonderland. These include:

ALL GIRLS ARE YOURS
ONE QUARTER IN THE SLOT

JOLLY HUNTING
GREAT HUNT IN AUTOMOBILES

MUTABOR
TRANSFORMATION INTO ANY ANIMAL OR PLANT YOU PLEASE

KAMASUTRAM
INSTRUCTION IN THE INDIAN ARTS OF LOVE
COURSE FOR BEGINNERS
FORTY-TWO DIFFERENT METHODS AND PRACTICES

DELIGHTFUL SUICIDE
YOU LAUGH YOURSELF TO BITS

DO YOU WANT TO BE ALL SPIRIT?
THE WISDOM OF THE EAST

DOWNFALL OF THE WEST
MODERATE PRICES. NEVER SURPASSED

COMPENDIUM OF ART
TRANSFORMATION FROM TIME INTO SPACE BY MEANS OF MUSIC

LAUGHING TEARS
CABINET OF HUMOUR

SOLITUDE MADE EASY
COMPLETE SUBSTITUTE FOR ALL FORMS OF SOCIABILITY.

GUIDANCE IN THE BUILDING UP OF THE PERSONALITY
SUCCESS GUARANTEED

And so Harry indulges in some of them – namely the car hunting one which is set in a future war between machines (cars) and men – All Girls Are Yours in which he relives every feeling and encounter he’s had with a girl or woman except that they all turn into beautiful love affairs instead of occasions for frustration and anger. Then he goes through the door marked:

MARVELLOUS TAMING OF THE STEPPENWOLF

Which isn’t such a good idea because he sees both man and wolf being pitifully tamed and humiliated.

He meets the chessplayer with a super-sized board who explains to Harry that he has not two but two thousand aspects to his soul and proceeds to play vast super-complex chess games with them, demonstrating to Harry that Life is a Game. Make of it what you will.

Finally he is back in the corridor and the next door he sees bears a sign:

HOW ONE KILLS FOR LOVE

This needs explaining. At several moments during their conversations, Hermine had explained to Harry that he must obey her in all things, up to and including the final one – she will command him to kill her. I wasn’t happy with this idea, since it seemed to me to take us back into the melodramatic, late-Romantic world of the Steppe Wolf, but here it is.

In fact before anything happens, Harry sees himself in a vast floor-to-ceiling mirror and sees a wolf. He reaches into his pocket and finds a knife. Ah. Mack the Knife, weapon of choice for the Weimar murderer. In a weird (it’s all beyond weird) twist, Harry ends meeting Mozart and has a lengthy conversation with him about art and music and time and eternity.

But Mozart laughs the cold, icy laughter of eternity, of those who have transcended time and Harry finds himself entering a room to find the naked bodies of Pablo and Hermine sleeping side by side as if after sex.

Beautiful, beautiful figures, lovely pictures, wonderful bodies. Beneath Hermine’s left breast was a fresh round mark, darkly bruised – a love bite of Pablo’s beautiful, gleaming teeth. There, where the mark was, I plunged in my knife to the hilt. The blood welled out over her white and delicate skin. I would have kissed away the blood if everything had happened a little differently. As it was, I did not. I only watched how the blood flowed and watched her eyes open for a little moment in pain and deep wonder. What makes her wonder? I thought. Then it occurred to me. that I had to shut her eyes. But they shut again of themselves. So all was done. She only turned a little to one side, and from her armpit to her breast I saw the play of a delicate shadow. It seemed that it wished to recall something, but what I could not remember. Then she lay still.

Pablo stir and is not greatly upset by what has happened. Maybe because it hasn’t happened. Mozart reappears and laughs at Harry’s stricken guilt. he says Harry must learn to laugh, too. All humour is gallows humour because we are all on the brink of the grave. Harry must learn the laughter of the gods of the immortals, a cold glacial laugh of eternity.

HARRY’S EXECUTION

The final scene is Harry’s trial, where he is convicted of the murder of Hermine but, in an unexpected twist, the court sentences him to live and laugh him out of the court.

At which point Mozart and the court disappear and Harry is talking to Pablo. Pablo, in his wise understated way, is a little disappointed with Harry for bringing the mud of reality and passion into his Magic Theatre but forgives him. None of it is real. The figure of Hermine appears as a toy, a little model. Could things be more trippy?

He took Hermine who at once shrank in his fingers to the dimensions of a toy figure and put her in the very same waistcoat pocket from which he had taken the cigarette. Its sweet and heavy smoke diffused a pleasant aroma. I felt hollow, exhausted, and ready to sleep for a whole year.

I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket. A glimpse of its meaning had stirred my reason and I was determined to begin the game afresh. I would sample its tortures once more and shudder again at its senselessness. I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.

Those are the book’s final words, the final words of the manuscript the Steppenwolf left with the nephew and which he promised to publish way back at the start of what is, physically, quite a short book, but one which feels like it’s taken us on a trip right around the universe of human possibilities.

Conclusion

I spent a lot of energy ridiculing the morbid self-pity of the lead character in the first half of the book, only to realise by the end that this was a narrative strategy, that Hesse took the maudlin self-pity he himself was prone too, especially after his second marriage collapsed in the 1920s, and blew it up out of all proportion… in order to make the character’s transformation all the more vivid and memorable.

So the real interest of the book is in the way the Steppenwolf is humanised, literally brought to Life and instructed in how to Live it and Enjoy it, by the beneficent guidance of Hermine, the hermaphrodite healer. The journey is packed with weird and wonderful scenes involving Goethe and Mozart, discussions of suicide and time and eternity and human nature and music and sex, it is a gallimaufrey of intensely felt ideas and insights.

And then the final forty pages take it to a different level altogether, a mad science fiction / horror / drug trip fantasy which in its combination of weirdness and philosophy does something hardly any other book I’ve ever read manages.

What an incredible book!

Credit

Der Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse was published in 1927. This translation by Basil Creighton was published in 1929. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection @ the Courtauld Gallery

In 1882 the 12th Duke of Hamilton caused a national uproar by over-riding objections from the Royal Family and John Ruskin and selling his collection of priceless art works to the Berlin Kupferstichkabinett (Prints and Drawings Museum). At the heart of his collection was a set of illustrations of Dante’s famous epic poem, The Divine Comedy, by Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli.

This exhibition gives us the opportunity to see these rare and precious works, along with other highlights from the Duke’s collection, namely a selection of invaluable illuminated manuscripts including the celebrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, back in the country for the first time in 130 years.

Dante

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was born and raised in Florence. He took the style of love poetry developed by the troubadors of the south of France to new heights in the love poetry he wrote to his muse, Beatrice Portinari. Florence was a hot-bed of political infighting and when Dante’s party, the White Guelphs, were violently overthrown in 1302, the poet was driven into bitter exile.

Here he conceived his epic poem, The Divine Comedy, divided into three books, in which the poet is escorted through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, respectively. Although each book is quite long – and the whole poem is 14,233 lines long – they’re built up from quite short two- or three-page cantos (33 in each book), in each of which Dante and his guide meet dead souls who give potted histories of their lives.

Although 700 years old, Dante’s verse still feels fast-moving and fluid, and the often powerful stories of the dead give the poem a timeless appeal. What raises it to the position – in many people’s opinion – of the greatest work of literature in European history, is the tremendous scaffold of Christian theology and symbolism which underpins it. The dead souls Dante talks to not only relate stories but each represents a different aspect of Catholic theology, as well as embodying many levels of medieval symbolism.

For example, at the same time as the poem describes a ‘real journey’ through a precisely imagined terrain, it is also symbolic of the soul’s journey towards the loving Christian God. The more you investigate the poem, the richer and deeper it becomes.

Although the Divine Comedy is long, it is made very readable by being divided into short cantos, and by the interlocking rhyme scheme of terza rima, each verse made of three lines which rhyme aba, bcb, cdc and so on, drawing the reader onwards into the narrative. The famous opening lines are:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Which can be translated as:

Halfway along the roadway of my life
I found myself within a darkened wood,
For I had stumbled off the direct way.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli (1445- 1510) was an Italian painter of the early Renaissance, famous for the serene expressions of his slender shapely women, exemplified in his allegorical paintings, The Birth of Venus (1486) or Primavera (1482). Like Dante he was born and raised in Florence, and there is evidence that he was especially attracted to Dante’s poem – a near contemporary wrote that Botticelli had written a detailed commentary on the Divine Comedy.

We know that Botticelli was commissioned to create drawings illustrating the poem, most likely for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, who also commissioned the Spring and Venus paintings. The Divine Comedy has 99 cantos and 92 Botticelli drawings have survived, dating probably from the 1480s. They are drawn with pen and ink on vellum ie sheep or goat skin. The sheets were created so that the drawings were done on one side and on the reverse was the next canto in the poem. When these were bound together you read the book sideways, by opening the pages vertically like a calendar, with the text of each canto written across one page and the illustration below.

As soon as the codex arrived at the Berlin Museum, the Germans unbound it in order to frame each drawing individually and exhibit them to the public. You can still see the series of little holes along the side of each picture where the stitching has been undone. You can also see the shadowy impress of the columns of text on the facing page, giving each image a ghostly imprint of the poem itself.

This exhibition displays ten drawings from each of the three parts of the Divine Comedy, charting Dante’s imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Sketchy

Your first impression is that they are very faint and sketchy, with an almost schoolboy clumsiness in the way humans and clothes are depicted. Faces, bodies, clothes, expressions, limbs, hands, they all look a bit amateurish.

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli -  (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Punishment of the corrupt in the eighth circle (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXII) by Sandro Botticelli – (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.9 x 47.1 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

An internet search quickly brings up the comprehensive set of illustrations for the Comedy done by the French artist Gustave Doré in the 1860s which, by comparison, are smooth and sinuous and fill the three dimensional space.

The contrast reminds us that the Botticelli created these nearly 400 years before Doré, right at the start of the western tradition, right at the moment that perspective was being rediscovered and the position of figures in a three dimensional space explored.

Some of the drawings have vestiges of colour, prompting the theory that they were initially all going to be coloured in. But something – maybe the size of the task, maybe artistic reasons – led them to remain uncoloured, fragile pen lines on a blank cream background.

Dynamic

In the poem Dante is guided through hell and purgatory by the great Latin poet, Virgil (70-19 BC). (It is notable and touching that he doesn’t select a theologian to be his guide through Christian belief, but the greatest author of the ancient world and a fellow Italian.) The entire poem is a journey in which – to take the two most obvious levels – Dante is shown the geography of the afterworld and gains a deeper understanding of Christian theology.

This helps to explain one of the most striking things about the images – the way Dante and Virgil appear in each one multiple times. In the drawing of the seventh circle of hell the two figures appear no fewer than eight times, progressing through the scene. The wall label points out that Inferno XXVII is unusual in depicting the pair only once.

The way they are shown progressing through each scene gives the pictures a tremendous dynamism. Once you settle to follow them through each scene, you find yourself examining it more carefully and then turning back to reread what it’s depicting. These are book illustrations and are designed to interact with a text: you read about Dante being stopped by an acquaintance in hell and then look down to see the illustration. Then you return to the text to read the soul in hell explaining how the dead are being punished in this particular circle – and look back at the illustration to find the couple in their next position, overlooking the panorama of tortured souls. And so on.

Each picture tells a story, selecting not a moment but a series of moments to capture the physical journey and the spiritual education. This is emphasised by the bridges down between the circles of hell, which Dante and Virgil cross and descend, their figures drawn at the top, in the middle and then at the bottom, moving ever downwards into realms of deeper horror.

Gestures

As I looked at the figures more closely, and followed their progress across each scene, I began to appreciate how Botticelli deploys a whole lexicon of physical gestures: here is Virgil showing, displaying, pointing, indicating, placating, berating, taking Dante’s arm, hand, embracing him. Similarly, it is Dante’s physical gestures rather than features which indicate that he is alarmed, distracted, clutching his head in horror, covering his eyes to blot out the terrible scenes.

A good example is the big illustration of Satan for which Botticelli, uniquely, used two pieces of vellum stitched together – a double-fold centre-spread of evil. Satan is a giant figure with three pairs of enormous bat’s wings, endlessly beating, creating the freezing wind which whirls some of the lost souls around hell. He has three heads and is depicted eternally eating the bodies of traitors, Judas and the two betrayers of Julius Caesar – Brutus and Cassio.

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV,2) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Centre of Hell. The full figure of Lucifer (Divine Comedy, Inferno XXXIV) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 63.2 x 46.3 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard. Note: I have added the red highlights showing Dante and Virgil.

His body is covered in the shaggy hair of a goat but the most striking thing about it is the way it is wedged right at the bottom of hell, conceived of as an enormous stepped funnel, an inverted circular pyramid, each step down taking the poets into a new ‘circle’ of hell. Here at the bottom is a narrow hole representing the centre of the earth, and Satan’s body is wedged tight into it. Here they must hastily scurry across the body of ultimate evil in order to pass through the hole and out the other side to begin their journey back up to the surface of the world.

Botticelli depicts the scared poets no fewer than seven times in this one illustration (highlighted in red, in the image above), in successive postures of cowering dread as they scurry over the malign body, squeeze through the hole and out the other side, where they emerge upside down. The interactive qualities of the illustrations, the use of multiple figures, and the lexicon of gesture all reach a kind of apogee in this one image.

Mount Purgatory

In the poem the poets climb up a long tunnel to the surface of the earth and there discover Mount Purgatory on an island, rising up through similar stages to the Earthly Paradise at its top. It is immediately noticeable that in these illustrations the human figures are in groups. In hell each figure was scattered and alone, in psychological as well as physical torment, epitomised by the illustration of the circle named Cocytus with over 100 human figures disfigured and dismembered and abandoned to their misery. Here in purgatory, humans are allowed to congregate and speak. And unlike the movement of the poets ever downwards, now their figures move upwards through the pictures.

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice explains to Dante the order of the cosmos (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.4 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Paradise

Dante eventually has to bid farewell to Virgil who was, after all, a pagan. He is taken forward in his spiritual education by Beatrice, the beautiful girl he fell in love with as a young man and stayed devoted to all his life, even though they both married other spouses.

In the ten illustrations from paradise the figure of poet and muse are much much larger than previously, as if by approaching spiritual purity, as if by approaching the most religious territory, Dante is becoming more human. His and Beatrice’s figures become larger, their expressions easier to read, and he is drawn always looking upwards, up towards the light radiating from the abode of bliss and the godhead. These are the most Botticelli-esque of the drawings, with the light swirling skirts and fabrics of Beatrice for the first time really reminding us of the Botticelli of the Primavera and Venus. No coincidence that it’s one of these illustrations which the Courtauld has selected as poster for the show. The wall label tells us that Kenneth Clark thought The ascent to the heaven of fire captured a delicate beauty ‘unequalled in Western art’.

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

Beatrice and Dante ascending to the heaven of fire (Divine Comedy, Paradiso II) by Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1481-1495) Pen and brown ink over metal pen on parchment, 32.4 x 47.6 cm © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Philipp Allard

The images also become progressively emptier, less cluttered, with more space and light, as we climb higher towards the ultimate source of all light. The physical torment and spiritual chaos of hell is partly conveyed by its sheer clutter, its messiness, the busy-ness of the images. In the final illustrations the sketchiness of the lines emphasise the all-encompassing light. It is revealing that the artist seems to have struggled with the final cantos which describe the rose garden at the height of heaven, and opts eventually for the image of holy figures made tiny, remote, by their distance from the profane author.

The Hamilton Bible

Having started by thinking the drawings area bit sketchy and amateurish, you finish the sequence exhausted by the journey the poem and artist have taken you on and utterly won over by their creative engagement with the unparalleled text. I started out preferring the Doré but ended up much preferring the Botticelli. Something mysterious, something very powerful, is revealed by prolonged study of them.

It is a bit of a wrench to turn your attention to the other element in the exhibition, the equally priceless and stunning illuminated manuscripts which are housed in display cases. After the thirty monochrome Botticelli images, there French and Italian masterpieces from the Renaissance, they overwhelm you simply by being in colour.

Centrepiece is one of the most important illuminated manuscripts in the world, the massive and beautifully illustrated ‘Hamilton Bible’, famous enough in its own day to have been depicted in Raphael’s portrait of Pope Leo X.

Most of these have been artfully opened to display theological illustrations, with several colourful (literally) depictions of hell to compare and contrast with the Botticelli. The Hamilton Bible is open at the first page of Genesis, opposite which is a full page illustration made up of a dozen or so discreet images depicting key incidents from the Christian creation story – the creation of the universe and world, Adam and Eve in the Garden and Eden, and so on.

Cristoforo Orimina - Genesis (in the so called 'Hamilton-Bible'), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Cristoforo Orimina – Genesis (in the so called ‘Hamilton-Bible’), around 1350-60. Book illumination and gold on parchment, 37.5 x 26.5 cm. © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett / Jörg P. Anders

Botticelli’s altarpiece

If you’ve paid the admission price to see this exhibition, you shouldn’t miss the Botticelli which is part of the Courtauld Gallery’s permanent collection, and housed on the first floor. It is the large altarpiece of The Holy Trinity with John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene, dated to the same years as the final drawings of the Dante series.

Botticelli at the V&A

This exhibition has been planned to coincide with a major new exhibition of Botticelli at the Victorian and Albert Museum, scheduled to open in March. It seems to be, fittingly enough, a Botticelli spring.

This is a beautiful, inspiring and moving exhibition to kick it off.

Related links

%d bloggers like this: