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Baldini, Baccio - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

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.

ArtWay Visual Meditation September 5, 2021