by Kathryn Lindskoog
Written in Response to an Inquiry
In 1997 I almost died and was hospitalized for a week or two and pulled through. I was in the midst of producing my three-volume work Dante’s
Divine Comedy: Journey to Joy. When I got home I was on intravenous medication with home nursing visits. During this time I had the task of meticulously proofreading the galleys for my Purgatory volume, so my mind was saturated with that book. One afternoon I was finally well enough that John transported me to the patio to continue writing my Paradise volume; but first I asked him to bring me our large, flat book of paintings that are in the Uffizi gallery so I could see if there were any Botticelli angels there that might be good on the cover of Paradise. (I had a Botticelli scene on the cover of my Inferno.) As I leafed through, I came to the one folded page and knew it was Primavera, which had no angels. But I indulged myself and opened it anyway to contemplate this painting that I have loved since 1952 when I was a freshman in college. (I took art history.) If I had had to name my favorite artist, I would have said Botticelli.
In 1960, when John and I went on Chapman University’s excellent economy tour of Europe and Russia, we were taken through the Uffizi, where we briefly saw Botticelli’s Venus and Primavera. I checked on the Uffizi’s hours and saw that it was open one evening a week, an evening when we would still be in Florence. So that evening when other tour members did other things we hurried back to the Uffizi and found it almost deserted. We got to spend at least a half hour all alone in the room where the two huge paintings were (they were shockingly unprotected back then), blissfully drinking them in. I was well aware that no one knew what Primavera was supposed to represent, which frustrated me, but I loved it anyway. So I was very glad to acquire the fold-out print later in the Uffizi book.
I was simply gazing at that Primavera print when out of the blue it dawned on me that this was an illustration of Purgatory 28-31. It was as if the idea fell out of the sky into my head. Of course I knew I must be wrong, but I immediately started looking for figures in the painting that might be characters in Purgatory. It was exciting. Of course my main job was to seek evidence that my “revelation” was wrong. Within a few days John had gathered all the art and Renaissance books in our house and the library that might shed light on this, plus encyclopedia articles, etc. I found no evidence that I was on the wrong track, but of course I found material that corrected, refined, and amplified my first guesses. I bounced my findings off a few people to learn what flaws they would find in my theory aside from the obvious fact that I could not have made a major art history discovery that was missed by trained experts for centuries. They were appropriately concerned at first that as a nonprofessional in art history I might make a fool of myself.
My Divine Comedy editor at Mercer had faith in me, and at the last minute he was able to put Primavera on the cover of my Purgatory volume. As months went by, I occasionally learned more from various helpful sources. (An outstanding help was Dan Pater, a wonderful American Roman Catholic priest who is currently Counsellor of the Apostolic Nunciature (assistant to the Papal Nuncio) in Turkey. I had met him on the MERELEWIS listserve.)
I got permission to submit an appropriate article to the toney Burlington art magazine in England, and the editor found no fault with it except that she just couldn’t believe it. Next I tried the Smithsonian, a perfect place for this subject (they like art history articles), but the only replies I could ever get were that they will reply within six weeks. So I injected the Lewis connection into the article and got it accepted by Books & Culture. (Contents of the sidebar list of Lewis quotations about Botticelli were provided to me by Doug Beyer, a wonderful Baptist pastor I met on the MERELEWIS listserve.) Early in 1998 the article was scheduled for the
Nov-Dec 1999 issue (definitely), then postponed to the Jan-Feb 2000 issue. To my dismay, it was switched to the Books & Culture Corner on Internet, but it will still appear in a print issue.
There is little mystery about the difficulty of getting a serious breakthrough discovery published if one is an outsider without the right connections. Editors and journalists are timid about publishing discoveries unless they come from certain established sources. This saves them the trouble of investigation, the responsibility of making judgments, and perhaps the risk of offending academics who are possessive about their turf.
The huge mystery that utterly bewilders me is this: how in the world did all the qualified experts in Renaissance art, Dante studies, and Florentine history fail to notice such an obvious truth for all these centuries?! How could they possibly have left the discovery up to a little paralyzed writer in California who was not even trying to figure out what Botticelli had in mind?!
All I know is that my discovery came unsought while I was in a relaxed, open state of mind, simply loving and appreciating the beauty before me. The discovery came as pure gift, and all I had to do was to verify it and complete it.
This reminds me of a poem about gifts (such as spiritual insight or flashes of intuition) that I wrote and published once in The Christian Century.
Light Showers of Light
All this time we have been drinking
deep from Cartesian wells,
and, no matter how sequential,
they cannot quench unfocused thirst.
Small rains will serve us wholly.
Calling on clouds may be a valid calling,
and receiving is a beggar’s art.
It is the only art.
I think this poem is about the nature of perception and creativity and spirituality, plus what we know about the function of the mysterious right hemisphere of the brain.