Alice Piazza – The dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and the Major Arcana

The most symbolic cathedral in Florence, it is the city’s main cathedral and the third largest in Europe. The Florentine Signoria commissioned its construction in 1296, and work was structurally completed in 1436. In the process, in 1412, it was named after Santa Maria del Fiore, and consecrated by Pope Eugene IV. At that time the de’ Medici family and the city, afflicted by the plague, and in conflict with the Sforzas of Milan who were besieging Lucca, went through a crisis. Cosimo (Florence 09/27/1389 – Careggi 08/01/1464) decided to go forth with the building of the cathedral dome, in order to provide work for the population and glorify God. The history of its construction is travailing, seeing destruction and interruptions during the work. Cosimo de’ Medici entrusted the work to Brunelleschi, which was indeed suspended during Cosimo’s exile in Venice. On returning to his city, Cosimo is greeted by celebrations from the people for the return of his family.

Cosimo’s wisdom and mecenatism, are known to this day, thanks to the construction of admirable works, from the foundation of the Accademia, the libraries, to public and religious buildings.

From the ferment of arts and studies, observed with new eyes and subjected to human will, exploring and drawing on the texts of the classical heritage, this period is known as the Renaissance. Philosophical research and the experimental approach of scientific research, moved synergistically with religious syncretism and cosmological research.

The Renaissance, quoting Von Stuckrad, is “an open door to modernity” (p. 165).

The role of Italian academies and courts is crucial in this gradual process of rediscovery, which has its focus in the discussion of the relationship between human beings and the cosmos, thus between individual free will and natural philosophy, which penetrates and investigates the reality of nature.

Although the Renaissance era plants the first seeds of an exploration that aims to scientifically study natural laws, this is permeated by the rigid moral order coming from the Christian religion. The view is strongly anthropocentric, and an attempt is made to eliminate the pagan components, which are considered superstitious. At the same time the symbolic world remains firmly integrated into the didactic illustrations, including religious ones.

The subject of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore is the Last Judgment: the human being, he investigates the capabilities of his own free will, and at the same time the limits. There is thus, even in the study of the movements of the stars, a distinction between “licit” research, of natural and physical laws, related to mundane events, and research that is defined as “superstitious,” related to individual horoscopy, which is illicit because it is believed that the divine will acts overridingly on the individual.

The very fresco of the Last Judgment reflects the great anxieties that troubled human spirits in dealing with these issues, accompanied by the intention to also probe the influences of the stars, pertinent to the celestial spheres, in a distinct way between mundane movements and movements that are still earthly, but pertinent to the individual level.

The basis of the heated Renaissance debate among scholars, in continuity with that of the 12th century, sees two main opposing currents, for one reason is superior, for the other the will; it follows that in the contact between philosophy and theology, these ideas also refer to God, whose will is free and cannot be probed by human philosophy and reason.

In the Renaissance this dialogue is reshaped thanks to crucial cultural changes in every field, with the beginning of the attempt to reconcile scientific models and “original” philosophy.

The fresco, begun in 1572 by Vasari at the behest of the Medici, and completed by Federico Zuccari, aroused wonder, but also criticism.

Co-present in the creation is the harmony between man, who manifests creative power, and the divine, who made him in his own image; and the clear separation between the heavenly seat, which generated and maintains the earthly one, and all his creatures, which are subject to judgment.

And I saw the dying, great and small, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Another scroll was opened; it is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged by the writings in the scrolls according to their works.” (Revelation, John 20:12)

The message carried on the scroll paper, announces the supreme moment of the reckoning, in which the behavior of each individual life is rewarded or punished. A final transformation follows, by which “the former heaven and earth had passed away,” and humanity is regenerated and rises again. From darkness it can return to light, thanks to symbols, which, with renewed meaning, become instruments of interaction with heavenly forces, and of expression of human interiority in correspondence with the infinity of the universe.

Tarot in this particular era, and in this very perspective of observing the relationship between the individual and the divine sphere, plays an important role.

The analogical juxtaposition that follows, between some of the Major Arcana and some of the allegories of the fresco, is my own free association, born out of my curiosity and passion for the study of the symbolic world, which I believe is almost neutral, and therefore, remembering Marsilio Ficino, influences us and can be proactively influenced by us, having the possibility and ability to choose the contact points of weakness or strength.

I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,

And you must not be abased to the other.

Walt Whitman

The deck I chose, finding images online, is the Visconti-Sforza deck, dating right back to the Renaissance period.

 

The seven sections: Gifts, Beatitudes and Virtues.

In seven sections are painted the gifts of the spirit, virtues, beatitudes and deadly vices; the eighth segment is dedicated to Christ and the heavenly court.

In each section, in the second level, there is a triad sitting on thrones of clouds, personifying a gift, a beatitude, a virtue; below the triad is a hellish region with the punishment of a capital sin.

The twenty-one beneficent personifications, twenty-four counting the triad of the heavenly region, influence and subordinate to their own meanings the underlying scenes of sins.

Lights many the eighth sphere displays to you

Which in their quality and quantity

May noted be of aspects different.

If rarity and density alone caused this,

then all the stars would share one power

distributed in lesser, greater, or in equal force. (Dante, Paradiso 2, 64-68)

XX The Judgement

The faculty of intellect is infused by the divine into human beings, who at the rational and spiritual levels are free to learn in order to evolve into the animic dimension. Thus the above is linked to the below. If action is consciously pondered, spirit can “win” over matter, realizing its own well-being, close to the purity that infuses peace and success meant as personal fulfillment. The invitation to change and act after pondering, as in the arcane of Judgment, can come from the immediate environment, in turn stimulating within us the feeling of brotherly Love, which moves us to altruism.

In the triad of the 2nd section, the gift is Wisdom, the Peaceful ones ascend blissfully into heaven, and the virtue is right brotherly Love; the opposing sin is envy, associated with hydra.

XI The Strenght

The material body is subject to the law of necessity, at the same time, as the arcane of the Force, this very law invites us to be “tamed,” with the power of intellect and knowledge, to channel and sublimate instinct and impulses, applying our discernment and self-control, with courage and willpower. In this exercise, our rougher parts can be transformed into strengths, and donated with initiative and generosity, to help others and defend justice.

Personified in the triad of the 3rd sector are the gift of Intellect with a winged diadem and hands filled with flowers to be generously distributed, the blessed Mild to his left, with their heads veiled and arms crossed over their chests, and the virtue of Prudence to his right, holding a mirror in one hand and a serpent in the other; the sin punished in the infernal frame below is acedia, associated with the donkey.

In the 4th section: the gift of the holy spirit is Piety, with heart in hand, the Pure in heart are blessed, and virtue is Temperance; sin is lust, associated with the pig.

XIV The Temperance

This version of the arcana particularly struck me, I imagined the water blending with the hue of the dress, at first glance it seemed even absent.

This arcane, in an act of devotion, perseveres in its action to overcome obstacles, purely, patiently and gently. We imagine water flowing in a fluid cycle, reminding us that it can change in the direction of progress. With moderation and balance, initiative guided by both intuition and reason can be nourishing, stable, and creative. The spread of regeneration, through cooperation and solidarity, is guided by an afflatus of sincere universal love.

In the 5th section we have the triad: gift of the Fear of God, bliss of the Poor in Spirit, virtue of Humility; the sin is pride, represented with the fall of Lucifer and the rebellious angels.

The triad in the 6th section represents: the gift of Counsel, received by the elder from an angel, the blessed pursuing in Mercy, and the virtue of Justice; sin in the circle below, the avarice associated with the toad.

In the 7th: the gift of Science, bliss is for those who hunger and thirst for Justice, virtue is Sobriety; sin is gluttony, associated with Cerberus.

Cerberus, cruel monster, fierce and strange,

Through his wide threefold throat barks as a dog

Over the multitude immers’d beneath.

His eyes glare crimson, black his unctuous beard, His belly large, and claw’d the hands” (Dante, Inferno 6, 13-18)

VIII The Justice

This arcane also seems to announce the distribution of reward or punishment, restoring, with the impartial judgment, the balance. The rigor of the stability of the cosmos, and the eternal protective power of its laws. The opposition again between heavenly and perfect level, and earthly underlying its cyclical events. The human being through reason and conscious knowledge, can act justly, honestly, practicing truth.

In the 8th section, the triad: the gift of Fortitude with armor, welcomed into heaven the blessed Persecuted, as the woman weeping covering her face; the virtue of Patience, holding the yoke; the sin of the wrathful, associated with the bear.

The 1st sector, East-oriented, portrays the angels with Ecce Homo, the cherubim and seraphim, and Jesus with the sword of justice and the lily of mercy; the two triads separated by the angel nailing the globe: Mary, John the Baptist, and Adam and Eve; Faith, Hope with folded hands, and the virtue of Charity, portrayed as a mother nurturing many children.

On Judgment Day, Death is defeated, symbolically represented with the broken sickle, human beings are reborn from the earth, to be subjected to the final judgment.

XIII The Death

Shifting is favourable, passed the transformation stage of judgment, what appears stationary will continue, leaving in the past what is no longer necessary, which can dissolve in function of a new cycle, with renewed hope.

The Church with crown and golden mantle triumphs. In eternity, time in its cyclic nature stops, Mother Earth with the nine breasts, emblem of divine perfection and protection, rests together with the personifications of the four Seasons, the elderly winter, autumn with the head adorned by the vine plant, the young summer, and spring with the crown of flowers.

Faith, Hope and Charity, the theological virtues, are unusual cards in modern tarot decks, but present in the Visconti-Sforza one.

At the highest part of the dome is the throne of God, with the twenty-four wise men of Revelation, painted in groups of three; and symbols of the evangelists and apostles.

On this wondrous sea

Sailing silently,

Ho! Pilot! ho!

Knowest thou the shore

Where no breakers roar –

Where the storm is o’er?

 

In the silent west

Many – the sails at rest –

The anchors fast.

Thither I pilot thee –

Land! Ho! Eternity!

Ashore at last!

Emily Dickinson

 

Sitography

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattedrale_di_Santa_Maria_del_Fiore.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore Images, https://www.facebook.com/OperaDuomo.

https://visionialdila.wordpress.com/2019/04/03/firenze-il-giudizio-finale-nella-cupola-del-duomo/.

Visconti-Sforza Tarot Images, https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazzi_Visconti-Sforza.

Meskalila Nunzia Coppola, La storia dei Tarocchi, https://youtu.be/65L6x_Whe0o.

 

Bibliography

  1. Tuan, Il linguaggio segreto dei tarocchi, ed.Giunti – De Vecchi, 2021.
  2. Von Stuckrad, Storia dell’astrologia, ed. Mondadori, 2005.

Filmography

I Medici – tv series, F. Spotnitz – N. Meyer. Regia di S. Mimica-Gezzan (st. 1), J. Cassar, J. M. Michelini (st. 2), C. Duguay (st. 3).

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