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Baccio Baldini: The Holy Mountain of God

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 5, 2021

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Baccio Baldini: The Holy Mountain of God

Looking up at Christ

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

This copper engraving was made after a design by Sandro Botticelli in 1477 by Baccio Baldini, a Florentine goldsmith and engraver. We see a monk who is climbing a ladder with eleven rungs with twelve virtues written in old Italian on and beneath them. Christ is standing at the top of the ladder – recognizable by his cross nimbus – waiting on the dome of heaven, surrounded by angels. This is the frontispiece of the book Monte Sancto di Dio (The Holy Mountain of God) by Antonio Bettini  (1396 – 1487, a Sienese monastic, diplomat and writer). It is a didactic picture that gives an excellent representation of the mystically tinted spirituality of that era.

Remarkably the picture of a ladder occurs only once in the Bible: Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, with angels ascending and descending. But here it is an image of God’s nearness rather than spiritual growth or climbing up towards God. However, behind 2 Peter 1:5-8 we could see a picture of a ladder in Peter’s accumulation of virtues. In these verses the way moves from virtue, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, and love of the brothers and sisters, to love for all.

It is chiefly thanks to John Climacus (575-649), abbot of the Sinai Monastery, that the ladder came to occupy an important place in the religious orders and the church of East and West. He described an ascetic path of thirty stages. On the one hand it concerned the struggle of the soul against passions and temptations and on the other the exercise of the virtues with the ultimate goal of the unio mystica, an experience of union with God and a life of profound connectedness with him.

In Baldini’s engraving the ladder is combined with another image, that of the mountain. The mountain of Horeb (where the burning bush stood) is called ‘the mountain of God’ in Exodus 3:1. In many religions a mountain is a holy place where the presence of God is palpable, where heaven and earth touch, where God and humans draw near to each other.

The four virtues at the bottom of the ladder are the cardinal virtues dating from antiquity: prudence, moderation, courage, and justice. Humilita, humility, is placed below, at the base.

These five virtues are followed by timore, the fear of the Lord:

            The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
            and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)

The six uppermost rungs add six gifts of the Spirit from Isaiah 11:2:

            The Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
            the Spirit of counsel and power,
            the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

In the engraving they are written in reverse order. Thus, first a man climbs up by his own efforts, but after some time it is the Spirit who offers the believer progress. 

But there is more to this print. On the two posts of the ladder are written the two mainstays of the way upwards: oratione and sacramento, prayer and sacrament. Prayer arises from man to God; in the sacrament Jesus comes to man with his love. Furthermore, to the right of the young man at the left we see the word speranza, At the foot of the cross of Jesus is written fede and right in front of him carita – together, faith, hope and love. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) designated this triplet as the three divine virtues, since they are directed towards God as well as given by him.

Underneath the monk we see a devilish creature clasping a hook in its claw. It tries to pull down the young man on the left by cecita (dazzlement or blindness). However, he quotes (very aptly) Psalm 121:1: “I lift up my eyes to the hills … my help comes from the Lord.” Whereas the youngster is looking to Christ in heaven (and he to him), the monk looks at Christ on the cross and says: ‘Tirami doppo te, draw me up after you.’ The four chains near the bottom of the ladder are a lovely detail; they are securely attached to the mountain to keep the ladder safe from the devil’s tricks. 

In this work the act of looking is given an important place. When you keep your eyes directed to Jesus in heaven, you will be able to resist the temptations of the devil. When your eyes are directed to Jesus on the cross, you can grow in love, power, and wisdom to know what matters most (cognoscimento dilatato, see bottom right).

A medieval adage states: you become what you direct your eyes at. What you look at affectionately, with longing and devotion – your treasure, ideal, idol, great example, your Redeemer – will change you step by step. Art also plays a role here, for example the breviaries for private devotion, didactic works, and especially the representations of the life and sufferings of Christ. For the people in the Middle Ages faith came not just from hearing, but also from seeing.

This simple book cover contains a treasure of information about the spirituality of that time. At first it may seem distant from ours, but there also may be much that we recognise. We also long for a life in God’s presence and ask ourselves how that is possible. This is what this engraving wants to make us see.

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Baccio Baldini: The Holy Mountain, 1477, copper engraving on paper, 25.7 x 18.5 cm. The book was printed by Nicolaus Laurentii, (a late 15th century German printer who lived in Florence, Italy. He printed many notable Italian Renaissance works and was amongst the first printers to use copper plate engravings.)

Baccio Baldini (1436-1487) was an Italian goldsmith and engraver, who was active during the Renaissance in his native Florence. Vasari says that all Baldini’s works were based on designs by Sandro Botticelli, although that is probably not correct. They did, however, collaborate on the first edition of Dante, published in 1481. His fine manner of working is characterised by sharp and deeply incised outlines and finely drawn details.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor-in-chief of ArtWay.

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ART NEWS INTERNATIONAL

1. ONLINE COURSE ICS CANADA – Fall 2021, Wednesday 10 – 13 h, Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, online: With/Out Reason: Art and Imagination in the Western Tradition by Dr. Rebekah Smick. Today the imagination occupies an august, if ill-defined, place in the popular mindset. While we might at some level link the imagination to the arts, its capacities for innovation are thought to span all human creative endeavours across the arts and sciences. In Western society today, thinking imaginatively, or outside the box, is a deeply revered feature of our strongly individualistic culture. Yet, until the eighteenth century, the products of human imagination were understood to be unavoidably communal insofar as they were thought to generate certain palpable effects. For good or ill, works of the imagination were expected to aesthetically impact all those who encountered them. They were never simply the result of abstract thought processes that functioned at a level beyond expected norms. Rather, imaginative inventions were governed by an understanding of the imagination in its most ordinary sense as that which creates mental images. This course will examine the consequences of this understanding of the imagination for the Western tradition and how it has led to where we are today. Through an investigation of key philosophical and theological texts (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Kant, Schelling, Coleridge, Derrida) as well as works of art (e.g. Shakespeare, Blake, Wordsworth), it will look at the place of image and imagination in a variety of forms of cognition from the ‘objective’ world of phenomenon to the ‘inobjective’ world of the highest truths. It will consider the traditional place of imagination in ethical theory. And it will clarify the inextricability of the arts and artistry from this history as well as offer points of departure for a theory of imagination today. http://courses.icscanada.edu/2021/05/without-reason-art-and-imagination-in.html?mc_cid=e67a114442&mc_eid=d8d28163a3

2. COMMISSIONING WORKS OF ART AND EXHIBITIONS IN CHURCHES – 29 September, 18 – 20 h, Swiss Church, 79 Endell St, London, England: Art in churches network event. Commissioning Works of Art and Exhibitions in Churches. For clergy and lay people wanting to bring the visual arts into their church. An ‘art in churches’ surgery to help parishes and artists work together to identify and achieve best practice. https://www.artandchristianity.org/upcoming-events/2021/8/23/commissioning-works-of-art-and-exhibitions-in-churches

3. NEW BOOK BY CAMERON ANDERSON – Some ask: Should Christians even bother with the modern wing at the art museum? Cameron Anderson answers with a ‘yes’ in his new book, God in the Modern Wing, co-edited with G. Walter Hansen. Pre-order the book from InterVarsity Press and tune-in to the virtual launch event at Upper House on Sept.17. 

4. CALL FOR ARTWORKS ART FOR CHANGE INDIA – We are delighted to invite you to participate in an upcoming virtual exhibition, a collaboration between Art for Change Foundation in New Delhi and Greenly Art Space in California. The theme looks at 'What Rooted us through the difficult times?' and 'What continues to keep us Rooted?'. The artwork you submit can be recent or artwork made in the last year on this theme. The Submission Deadline is 8th September. The Artist exchange meet is planned for 11th September and The Online Gallery will open on 2nd October. Please submit a good resolution of the artwork along with a 50-100 word note on the artwork answering the thematic question to isaac@artforchange.space. On Sep 11th, we plan to have an artist exchange Zoom meet with some of the artists and community members who took part in the Rooted | California exhibition. Please feel free to let us know if you have any questions.

5. ART + CHRISTIANITY SERIES ON YOUTUBE – Discover or rediscover our recent online series at Norwich Cathedral, Salford Roman Catholic Cathedral, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and St David's Cathedral. Watch videos

6. ART IN CHURCHES NETWORK EVENT IN LONDON – Art in churches network event Commissioning Works of Art and Exhibitions in Churches, 29 September – Swiss Church, London WC2H. For clergy and lay people wanting to bring the visual arts into their church. An ‘art in churches’ surgery to help parishes and artists work together to identify and achieve best practice. Book your ticket

7. VERMEER EXHIBITION IN DRESDEN GERMANY – 10 September 2021 – 2 January 2022, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Theaterplatz 1, Dresden: Johannes Vermeer. Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is one of the world’s most famous works from the ‘Golden Age’ of Dutch painting. It was acquired for the collection of the Saxon Elector Frederick August II in Paris in 1742 and since then it has been part of the Dresden Old asters Picture Gallery. Since 2017, this early masterpiece by Vermeer has been undergoing restoration following careful scientific investigation. Recent research has shown that the extensive area of overpainting in the background was not done by Vermeer himself. Removal of this overpainting has revealed a depiction of a standing Cupid (god of love) as a “painting within the painting” on the rear wall of the room, thus radically changing the overall appearance of the work. The spectacular result of the restoration will give viewers a different perspective on the painting. The Girl Reading a Letter will be the centerpiece of the exhibition along with nine other paintings by Vermeer. Some 50 works of Dutch genre painting from the second half of the 17th century will be on display. Paintings by Pieter de Hooch, Frans van Mieris, Gerard Ter Borch, Gabriel Metsu, Gerard Dou, Emanuel de Witte and Jan Steen will show the artistic environment in which Vermeer worked and with which he was in close contact. Hours: https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/besuch/ https://gemaeldegalerie.skd.museum/ausstellungen/vermeer-johannes-vermeers-dresdner-briefleserin-am-offenen-fenster-und-die-hollaendische-genremalerei-des-17-jahrhunderts/

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences, click here

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ARTWAY: OPENING EYES, HEARTS AND MINDS


Other recent meditations:
- September 2021: Jan Toorop: Apostles Window
- September 2021: Douglas Coupland: I wait for God to appear
- August 2021: Josh Tiessen: Harbinger and Whale Hymn
- August 2021: Paul Hobbs: Unknown Martyrs

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists