The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1967)

This is an alphabetical list of fantastical and imaginary beasts from myth and legend, compiled by Borges with the assistance of his friend, Margarita Guerrero, and, to be honest, it’s a bit boring.

The Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Imaginary Beings has three prefaces which, among other things, point out that the collection grew, from 82 pieces in 1957, to 116 in 1967, to 120 in the 1969 edition. It’s an example of the pleasurable way all Borges’s collections – of poems, essays or stories – accumulate additional content over successive editions and, in doing so, hint at the scope for infinite expansion, and the dizzying sense of infinite vistas which lie behind so many of his fictions.

Imaginary beings

Strictly speaking there’s an endless number of imaginary beings since every person in every novel or play ever written is an imaginary being – but, of course, the authors have in mind not imaginary people but imaginary animals, fabulous beasts concocted by human fantasy. They have aimed to create:

a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination

The book was created in collaboration with Borges’s friend Margarita Guerrero, and between them they tell us they had great fun ransacking ‘the maze-like vaults of the Biblioteca Nacional’ in Buenos Aires, scouring through books ancient and modern, fictional and factual, for the profiles of mythical beings from folklore and legend.

One of the conclusions they make in the preface was that it is quite difficult to make up new monsters. Many have tried, but most new-fangled creatures fall by the wayside. For example, Flaubert had a go at making new monsters in the later parts of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but none of them really stir the imagination. There appear to be some archetypal patterns which just seem to gel with the human imagination, which chime with our deepest fears or desires and so have lasted through the centuries in folklore and myth, and are found across different cultures.

We are as ignorant of the meaning of the dragon as we are of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that appeals to the human imagination, and so we find the dragon in quite distinct places and times. It is, so to speak, a necessary monster, not an ephemeral or accidental one, such as the three-headed chimera or the catoblepas.

There are entries for 120 imaginary beasts, arranged in alphabetical order across 142 pages, making an average of 1.2 pages per entry, much shorter even than his short stories, about the same length as the ‘parables’ included in Labyrinths. Where possible, the authors include references to the source documents or texts where they discovered good descriptions of the beast in question.

But book actually references quite a few more than the 120 nominal beasts since many of the entries are portmanteau headings of, for example, the imaginary fauna of Chile (6 beasts); the Fauna of China entry (taken from the T’ai P’ing Kuang Chi) describes 12 imaginary beasts and 3 types of mutant human (people whose hands dangle to the ground or have human bodies but bat wings); the Fauna of America entry describes nine weird and wonderful animals. In other words, the book actually contains names and descriptions of many times 120 beasts, at a rough guess at least three times as many.

Thoughts

This should all be rather wonderful, shouldn’t it? But although it’s often distracting and amusing, The Book of Imaginary Beings almost entirely lacks the sense of wonder and marvel which characterises the extraordinary contents of Labyrinths.

Ultimately, the long list becomes rather wearing and highlights the barrenness of even the most florid creations if they are not brought to life by either a chunky narrative (I mean a narrative long enough for you to become engaged with) or by Borges’s magic touch, his deployment of strange and bizarre ideas to animate them.

Borges’s best stories start with wonderful, mind-dazzling insights and create carapaces of references or narrative around them. These encyclopedia-style articles about fabulous creatures, on the other hand, occasionally gesture towards the strange and illuminating but, by and large, remain not much more than a succession of raw facts.

For example, we learn that the word ‘basilisk’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘little king’, that the fabulous beast it refers to is mentioned in the authors Pliny and Chaucer and Aldrovani, in each of which it has a different appearance; we are given a long excerpt about the basilisk from Lucan’s Pharsalia.

Well, this is all very well and factual, but where are the ideas and eerie insights which make Borges’s ficciones so mind-blowing? Nowhere. The entries read like raw ingredients which are waiting to be cooked by Borges into a dazzling essay… which never materialises. More than that, it’s full of sentences which are uncharacteristically flaccid and banal.

Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries.

Really? In some of his stories this idea comes to dazzling life; in this collection of articles, it lies dead on the page.

A bestiary manqué

You could argue that the whole idea is an updating of the popular medieval genre of the ‘bestiary’. Wikipedia gives a pithy summary of the genre:

A bestiary is a compendium of beasts. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes that described various animals and even rocks. The natural history and illustration of each beast was usually accompanied by a moral lesson.

I think the key is in that final phrase: bestiaries may well have fired the imaginations of their readers, amused and distracted them, but they had a purpose. Indeed, to the medieval mind the whole natural world was full of meaning and so every single creature in it existed to point a moral, to teach humans something (about God, about the Christian life, and so on). Bolstering every anecdote about this or that fabulous animal was a lesson we could all take away and benefit from.

Whereas, being 20th century agnostics and, moreover, of a modernist turn of mind which prefers clipped brevity to Victorian verbosity, the authors write entries which are deliberately brief and understated, and shorn of any moral or reflection, or analysis.

Whereas Borges’s fictions tend to build up to a bombshell insight which can haunt you for days, these entries just end and then you’re onto another item on the list, then another, then another, and after a while the absence of analysis or insight begins to feel like an almost physical lack.

Pictures

Given its static nature as a rather passive list written in often lifeless prose, what this book would really, really have have benefited from would have been being published in a large, coffee table format with an illustration for each monster.

I googled a lot of the entries in the book and immediately began having more fun on the internet, looking at the weird and wonderful illustrations of the beasts – comparing the way the basilisk or chimera or behemoth have depicted through the ages (and in our age which has seen an explosion of fantastical illustrations) than I had in reading Borges and Guerrero’s rather drab texts.

The two-headed Bird Dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary Illuminated manuscript

The two-headed bird-dragon Ouroboros from the Aberdeen bestiary illuminated manuscript

Favourites

On the up-side, here are some things I enjoyed:

I was delighted that The Book of Imaginary Beings contains not one but two entries for made-up creatures in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novel, Perelandra.

To be reminded of the strange fact that Sleipnir, the horse belonging to Odin, king of the Norse gods, had eight legs.

A Chinese legend has it that the people who lived in mirrors were a different shape and size and kind from the people in this world. Once there were no borders and people could come and go between the real world and the mirror world. Then the mirror people launched an attack on our world but were defeated by the forces of the Yellow Emperor who compelled them to take human form and slavishly ape all the behaviour of people in this world, as if they were simply our reflections. But one day they will rise up and reclaim their freedom (Fauna of Mirrors).

The Hidebehind is always hiding behind something. No matter how many times or whichever way a man turns, it is always behind him, and that’s why nobody has been able to describe it, even though it is credited with having killed and devoured many a lumberjack. The Goofus Bird builds its nest upside down and flies backward, not caring where it’s going, only where it’s been.

At one point Borges lingers on the dogma of the Kabbalists and, for a moment, the real deep Borges appears, the one fascinated by the paradoxes of infinity:

In a book inspired by infinite wisdom, nothing can be left to chance, not even the number of words it contains or the order of the letters; this is what the Kabbalists thought, and they devoted themselves to the task of counting, combining, and permutating the letters of the Scriptures, fired by a desire to penetrate the secrets of God.

A Platonic year is the time required by the sun, the moon, and the five planets to return to their initial position; Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus calculates this as 12,994 common years.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a forged letter supposedly sent by Prester John, the king of kings, to the Emperor of Byzantium, made its way all over Europe. This epistle, which is a catalogue of wonders, speaks of gigantic ants that dig gold, and of a River of Stones, and of a Sea of Sand with living fish, and of a towering mirror that reflects whatever happens in the kingdom, and of a sceptre carved of a single emerald, and of pebbles that make a man invisible or that light up the night.

Threes

The Greek gods ruled three realms, heaven ruled by Zeus, the sea ruled by Poseidon, and hell ruled by Hades.

In ancient Greek religion the Moirai, called by the Romans the Parcae, known in English as the Fates, were the incarnations of destiny: Clotho (the ‘spinner’), Lachesis (the ‘allotter’) and Atropos (the ‘unturnable’, a metaphor for death).

Cerberus, the huge dog guarding hell, had three heads.

In Norse mythology, the Norns are female beings who rule the destiny of gods and men. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation of the Völuspá, there are three main norns, Urðr (Wyrd), Verðandi and Skuld. They are invoked in the three weird sisters who appear in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

There are many valkyries – choosers of the dead –but tradition names three main ones as Hildr, Þrúðr and Hlökk.

Hinduism has Trimurti (Sanskrit for ‘three forms’) referring to the triad of the three gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

The Christian God is a Trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is resurrected on the third day after his crucifixion (counting Good Friday, Saturday and Sunday as days), an event prefigured by the three days the prophet Jonah spent in the belly of the whale.

In The Divine Comedy Dante journeys through the three parts of the afterworld, hell, purgatory and paradise.

According to Moslem tradition, Allah created three different species of intelligent beings: Angels, who are made of light; Jinn (‘Jinnee’ or ‘Genie’ in the singular), who are made of fire; and Men, who are made of earth.

Jinnee or genies grant three wishes.

Humans divide time (if it exists, that is) into the past, the present and the future.

The three billygoats gruff. The three bears. The three little pigs.

Fours

The four horsemen of the apocalypse.

The four gospels of the four evangelists, each one symbolised by an animal: to Matthew a man’s face, Mark the lion; Luke the calf; and John, the eagle.

In Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision four beasts or angels, ‘And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings’ and ‘As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.’

John the Divine in the fourth chapter of Revelations: ‘And before the throne there was a sea of glass like unto crystal: and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within…’

In the most important of Kabbalistic works, the Zohar or Book of Splendour, we read that these four beasts are called Haniel, Kafziel, Azriel, and Aniel and that they face east, north, south, and west.

Dante stated that every passage of the Bible has a fourfold meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the spiritual.

The four corners of the earth. The four points of the compass.

The Greeks divided visible matter into the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water, and attributed the four humours which match them, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood, themselves the basis of the four temperaments of mankind, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic and sanguine, respectively.

The four magic animals of Chinese cosmogony.

The four animals of good omen, being the unicorn, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise.

A Borges reading list

This is an incomplete list of the texts most frequently referred to in The Book of Imaginary Beings. Laid out like this you can see how, beyond the respectable tradition of the classics, this is a kind of greatest hits selection of the esoteric and mystical traditions of world literature.

Reflecting on the list of texts, I realised they have one thing in common which is that they are all pre-scientific and non-scientific. Personally, I believe in modern cosmology’s account of the creation of the universe in a big bang, in the weird discoveries of particle physics which account for matter, gravity, light and so on; and, when it comes to life forms, I believe in a purely mechanistic origin for replicating life, and in Darwin’s theory of natural selection as improved by the discovery of the helical structure of DNA in 1953 and the 70 subsequent years of genetic science, to explain why there are, and inevitably have to be, such an enormous variety of life forms on earth.

For me, taken together, all the strands of modern science explain pretty much everything about the world around us and about human nature: why we are why we are, why we think and behave as we do.

None of that is recorded in any of these books. Instead everything in the books listed here amounts to various types of frivolous entertainment and speculation. It could be described as highly decorative rubbish. Homer and the Aeneid may well be the bedrocks of Western literature and Dante one of the central figures of European civilisation but, having lived and worked in the world for over 40 years, I’m well aware that the vast majority of people neither know nor care, and care even less about the more remote and obscure books on this list. They are for the pleasure of antiquaries and lovers of the obscure; people, dear reader, like thee and me.

Ancient world

  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
  • The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
  • Hesiod’s Theogony and Book of Days (700 BC)
  • The Old Testament
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead
  • The Mahābhārata (3rd century BC?)
  • The Argonautica by Apollonius Rhodius (3rd century BC)
  • The Aeneid by Virgil (29 to 19 BC)
  • Metamorphoses or the Books of Transformations by Ovid (8 AD)
  • De Bello Civili or the Pharsalia by Lucan (30 AD?)
  • On the Nature of the Gods by Cicero
  • The Natural History by Pliny the Elder (77 AD)
  • History of the Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus
  • The New Testament (1st century AD)

Middle Ages

  • Beowulf
  • The Exeter Book (tenth century)
  • The Song of Roland (11th-century)
  • The Poetic Edda (13th century)
  • The Prose Edda (13th century)
  • The Zohar, primary text of the Kabbalists
  • The 1001 Arabian Nights
  • The Golden Legend compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (thirteenth century)
  • The Travels of Marco Polo (1300)
  • The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1320)
  • Travels of Sir John Mandeville (1360s)
  • Autobiography by Benvenuto Cellini (1563)
  • Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto (1532)

Early modern

  • The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes (1605 and 1615)
  • The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton (1621)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or, a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)
  • Peter Wilkins by Robert Paltock (1751)
  • The World as Will and Representation (1844) by Arthur Schopenhauer
  • The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Gustave Flaubert (1874)
  • The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1915)

Would be a challenge, fun and interesting to read all these books, in this order. A nutritious slice through Western civilisation.


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Borges reviews

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.

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