From ancient byways to modern highways, glimpses of faith are everywhere...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Devilish details: Hill of Hell's last gasp

Basilica (Photo by Georges Jansoone)
For years, there have been many mysteries concerning the Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. 

It is called “Papal” because the cornerstone was first laid by Pope Gregory IX on 17 July 1228 – the day after he canonized Francis of Assisi.  However, whether construction had actually begun before that day remains a mystery.  Wikipedia also reports that the “uncorrupted body” of St. Francis was then brought to the Lower Basilica after its completion in 1230.  The location of his body was kept secret for fear that “St. Francis’ remains might be stolen and
dispersed.”  It wasn’t until 1818 that these remains were “rediscovered.”

Another mystery concerns the great works of art that are found within the Basilica.  It is known that many
artists contributed to these works, but their actual identities remain sketchy.  For example, the famous
frescoes depicting scenes from the life and death of St. Francis are usually attributed to Giotto di Bondone.
However, Wikipedia reports that “many scholars have expressed doubt that Giotto was in fact the author of
the Upper Church frescoes.”

Nevertheless, a recent headline announced the following:  Devil found in detail of Giotto fresco in Italy’s Assisi.  This Reuters article goes on to report that “the devil was hidden in the details of clouds at the top of fresco number 20…”  The Italian art historian who discovered this hidden “figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns” must have also assumed that the devil looks like this. However, it is this assumption that may ultimately be more devilish than the painted figure itself.

That is because devil’s horns have been utilized as a stereotypical insult to both Neopagans and Jews. 
Wikipedia reports that depicting the devil with horns is a relatively modern occurrence, “and derives from Pan’s popularity in Victorian and Edwardian neopaganism.” reports that Jews have also been accused of having horns ever since Jerome’s Vulgate confused the Hebrew word “karan” (which referred to the radiance of Moses after he descended a second time from Mount Sinai) with the Hebrew word “keren” (which means “horns”).

Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is how the “Hill of Hell” (a place where condemned criminals were once put to death, and where the Basilica now rests) could be transformed into a place of such beauty.  May this beauty never be marred by the all-too-human failings that are expressed within artistic stereotypes like these.       


Copyright November 24, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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