1936: Gold Were His Limbs where He Was Bird

Amos Nattini - Divina Commedia, Purgatorio Canto XXXI (1936)

In 1921, the Istituto nazionale dantesco in Milan commissioned a lavish edition of the Divine Comedy to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Dante’s death; the edition was to include an original color plate for each of the 100 canti of the poem. Chosen for this monumental task was Amos Nattini, a 29-year-old artist from Genoa who spent the next twenty years devoted to the project.

Beginning in 1915, the plates were exhibited to the public as Nattini produced them; the sumptuous volumes themselvesmeasuring about 2 x 4 feet—were published in 1928, 1936, and 1941 in a limited edition of a thousand numbered copies.

The image above represents the moment of Beatrice’s appearance in Canto XXIX of the Purgatorio. Beatrice, the love of whom Dante first detailed in the Vita Nuova, is the representation of divine guidance as Dante travels from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven. Here, she appears at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, in the Garden of Eden—whence she will lead Dante through the spheres of Heaven. Appearing at the end of an elaborate symbolic procession that has included candles trailing rainbow bands of smoke, biblical figures, animals with wings full of eyes, dancing women of many colors (one with three eyes), and many others, Beatrice rides a golden chariot pulled by a griffin:

Tanto salivan che non eran viste;
le membra d’oro avea quant’ era uccello,
e bianche l’altre, di vermiglio miste.

[His wings] reached high out of sight;
gold were his limbs where he was bird;
and white the rest, with crimson mixed.

The griffin has traditionally been seen here as a figure of Christ, its combined elements (eagle and lion) corresponding to Christ’s two natures: divine (“high out of sight”) and human, the crimson color representing the blood of the Passion.

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