National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 3, 1979-1980

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Simone Martini's St Catherine of Alexandria: 
An Orvietan Altarpiece and the 
Mystical Theology of St Bonaventure

by Joel Brink

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According to Dionysius and such scholastics as St Thomas Aquinas and St Bonaventure (the Dominican and Franciscan theologians who borrowed extensively from De Coelesti Hierarchia, (19) the Seraphim were considered to be closest to God and hence on fire with love of the Father, whereas the Cherubim were characterized by their unsurpassed knowledge of God and signified divine wisdom. The Thrones were distinguished by their knowledge of the meanings of God's works in the Father himself and thus were often representative of divine justice. These points of significance match closely the attributes given the angels in the Orvietan painting. The Seraph (fig. 13) with its luminous wings and warm colorful drapery turns to behold God directly and in its hands holds the burning candles which symbolize the intensity of its love of the Father. The Cherub (fig. 14) is depicted with three pairs of wings, though less luminous, and a cool-blue vestment. In its hands the Cherub displays an open book with text, which, along with the laurel crown, signifies fullness of knowledge. Although the carefully inscribed text in the open book might appear at first to be an actual Latin passage, on close analysis the text has no rational sense whatsoever. Aside from the fact that the passage may not have been legible from below nor intended to reproduce a specific literary tract, the fact that it defies linguistic analysis (and may in fact be a kind of riddle) would fit with the idea of the Dionysius: the Cherubim could not communicate their illuminations directly to the corporeal realm, but only to the intermediate order of the angelic hierarchy which in turn would transmit them below. (20) Finally, the Thrones (figs 15 & 16) which comprise the lowest level of the upper triad are set off from the Seraph and Cherub by having two pairs of wings, and they hold staffs and orbs to denote their judicial power. The draped, open thrones they display before them could allude to the description of the Dionysius in which he compares the order to the properties of a chair: its elevated position, strength, support, and open shape - qualities which, according to the author, bring the Thrones into close proximity to God the Father. (21)

The lower two orders of the angelic hierarchy are also described in detail in De Coelesti Hierarchia, and we can be certain that the original Orvietan altarpiece included these angels in the lost roundels and pinnacles of the side panels. Such systems of angelic choirs were known elsewhere in the visual arts; we find, for example, in the vault of the Florentine Baptistery (where Dante and Simone could have seen them) the complete celestial hierarchy radiating out from the Redeemer, the Alpha and Omega - and other similar cycles are found in San Marco, Venice, and in the Baptistery of Padua Cathedral. (22) However, whereas the Florentine mosaics present a comprehensive view of the whole history of salvation, the iconography of the Orvietan altarpiece - which unites the teaching Christ and the scripture from the Gospel of St John with the angelic hierarchy and the Redeemer - is more specifically rooted in mystical theology of the Franciscans.

In the process of a review of the spiritual works of St Bonaventure (fig. 18), the supreme theologian of the Franciscan Order and its Minister General between 1257 and 1273, it became evident that the unusual iconographical program of the altarpiece could be elucidated by the Seraphic Doctor's mystical sermons.(23) To the Franciscan intimately acquainted with the mystical opuscula of St Bonaventure (and we can be certain that many in the Trecento were), the appearance in the painting of a teaching Christ with three-fold text, together with the angelic hierarchy and the Redeemer, would have provided the essential elements constituting a particular mode of contemplation involving the divinity of Christ. This mystical process led upward systematically from the hierarchal interpretation of scripture to the preparation of the soul and its ultimate union with Cod. Influenced by the mystical doctrines of Dionysius, St Bonaventure perceived three-fold analogical patterns extending from the divinely inspired scripture to the angelic choirs and to the Trinity. Rising from the divinely-engineered three-fold revelation of scripture and spiritual acts of purgation, illumination, and perfection, the soul of the contemplative (according to St Bonaventure's mystical sermons) entered the celestial sphere where it was marked with nine levels corresponding symbolically to the nine choirs of angels. The goal of the ascent was represented by blissful union with Cod in the upper-celestial realm where the three persons of the Trinity were revealed in the mind's eye of the contemplative. (24)

In the painting, the image of the teaching Christ shown pointing to the text on his scroll was probably inspired by St Bonaventure's celebrated sermon entitled Christus unus omnium magister (Christ, the One Teacher of All). (25) The sermon is especially appropriate because its three-fold form and content was based on the Same scripture that the Christ-child admonishes us to behold in the painting: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." According to St Bonaventure, Christ is the Way because he is the master of faith; he is the Truth because he is the master of rational knowledge; and he is the Life because he is the master of the knowledge of contemplation. With Christ as the Teacher it is thus possible to progress from the stability of faith to the serenity of reason and ultimately to attain the sweetness of contemplation. St Bonaventure emphasizes two modes of contemplation in his sermon, namely a going-in and a going-out. "The going-in is to go to Christ as the uncreated Word and the food of angels," to use St Bonaventure's words, and the going-out is to go to Christ as the incarnate Word. While the first is concerned with his divinity, the second involves his humanity. To elaborate on the first mode of contemplation St Bonaventure quotes from the Psalm: "I will go in to the place of the wonderful tabernacle up to the dwelling place of God...." "This refers, " he says, "to the heavenly Jerusalem. No one can enter into the contemplation of it unless he is led in through the uncreated Word which is Christ. Therefore, Dionysius writes in the first book of De Coelesti Hierarchia (I, 1-2), 'In as far as possible, we look to the illumination of the most sacred words given by the Father. In as far as we are able, we will consider the hierarchies of the heavenly spirits manifest in them for us symbolically and anagogically....' "

Next Pagedivinity of Christ and angelic hierarchies

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