Anne and I step aside from the slow-motion procession of tourists walking among the market stalls of Florence in the roasting sunshine and enter the Baptistery, a compact octagonal church with oblong-patterned, black-and-white façades like an enormous liquorice allsort. Our heads tilt upwards and we stare at the swarming life of the eight mosaic panels in the cupola, a hundred feet above us. Through my binoculars I can make out a colossal devil sitting in a cleft rock. He is horned and muscular and rather human. His forehead is corrugated as though in distress at his own evildoing. From each of his ears a snake oozes with a naked person writhing in its jaws. Between the sleek worm of his moustache and the black ringlets of his beard the broad mouth is gulping somebody whole. In each hand he clutches another naked human – a ‘sinner’, no doubt – their skin scored by his nails. Nearby, frogs are raping women and lizards are biting at people’s thighs. As Dante was being baptised here seven hundred and forty years ago, his baby eyes might have tried to focus on this scene.

Ghastly nightmares, diseased fantasies ... Never mind, reassurance is at hand. A yard or two away sits Christ the Judge. The monsters have shrunk to midgets, cowering round the lower edge of the panel – a blunt-nosed serpent, a blue, bat-winged devil which Dante used in the Inferno. The robed and haloed Godhead sits calmly on a bright blue rainbow. The nail-holes in his hands are the merest dots. His Byzantine mask-face stares down without expression. Unfortunately, I’ve no habit of credence or reverence to bring to this figure. His pose is too stiff, too unfeeling, to counterbalance all that wickedness and suffering, let alone console me for it. The power of this ceiling is all in the agony of the humans and their tormentors and none in the calm of His Omnipotence.

My wife and I are on a strange sort of anti-pilgrimage that began ten days ago on the Tuscan hill of Montesenario, an hour’s stiff bicycling above our hotel in Bivigliano.

We change down hurriedly into our lowest gear as the road climbs past locked metal gates leading to villas shuttered against the heat – then dismount equally hurriedly and push our bikes uphill past slopes luxuriant with beech and sweet chestnut. The hill is crowned with the usual Christian apparatus: barrack-like convent, church with campanile. At the back of the church behind the altar Jesus hangs on the Cross, eyes shut tight in near death, a pale cloth scarved round his crotch. He appears through swirls of white plaster clouds, an explosion of celestial meringue. Golden, overweight boys with little wings glitter and grin from among the sickly billows. Metallic spikes representing rays of sun like Thirties cinema decor shoot sideways from the tortured man.

It all looks like the last decadence of a cult, conspicuous evidence that this church could afford to commission a fairly expensive job from some hack down there in the city who was equally ready to do the honours for a saint or a duke, a martyr or a town councillor. Where were the believers in all this lavish display? On their knees at the rear, I suppose, mesmerised by the glamour of the show, lighting the candles they had paid for, whispering in time to the chanting of the nuns.

Baffled by so much unreality, I seize on the little shabby notices outside which point down pathways round the hill. They promise a fonte, a cimitero and several grotte. We walk down and down, our feet crunching on leaves seared by drought. Below us, a deserted farmhouse crumbles on its terrace, its pantiled roof weighted with boulders. A cave opens into a limestone outcrop. Its mouth is five feet high, partly built up with masoned blocks, its steel-bar door locked. Through it we can see a thick brown crucifix on a rough-hewn plinth and a flagged floor. The sides and slanting roof of the cell are raw grey rock. In this refuge, this living grave, S. Alessandro Falconieri slept, prayed, shivered and hungered, around 1310. The mountain is ringed with these grottoes, like martins’ nests clinging to a crag. Seven merchants from Florence gave up their businesses in the 14th century and came here to set up a colony of mendicant friars.

What were they fleeing? If it was the Black Death, what happened to their families? Were they driven, even before the plague years, by boredom – a feeling that they’d done it all – or by guilt at affluence in the midst of poverty, or by sexual disgust? In Greece at that time, a brilliant monk called Athanasios moved from Mount Athos to live and worship in the caves that pock the conglomerate towers of the Meteora in Thessaly, escaping from the Turkish pirates who ravaged the peninsulas of Khalkidiki. It was an incomplete escape: he saw demons flying round his fastness and was mortally averse to women, calling them ‘afflictions’ and ‘slings’. In Montserrat in Cataluñia, in Cantabria and Majorca, on the Skelligs off County Kerry and in the hill country of the Kandyan kingdom in Ceylon, men and women saw things, angels spoke to them, fiends and dragons tried to scorch them, and these wee, cramped overhangs in the rocks became their refuges from the mortifications of the world. On the lip of the biggest seaward drop in the British Isles, Slieve Leac in south-west Donegal, a hermit lived in the two-foot space between slats of rock, near a spring that still flows, and pilgrimages to the place came to an end only in the last generation. Near the source of the Ebro in Cantabria we found iglesias rupestres that had been mined out of solid outcrops. In one of them we peered through the doorway grille at a trunk of rock left in place to bear the roof. It stood in the gloom like the stem of Yggdrasil growing out of the nether world. At least those souls were making their own cells and chapels out of their own needs, they were not subjugated by a cartel of bishops, treasurers and grandees who enforced their orthodoxies by torture, inquisition and the prestige of wealth.

After a peaceful week in the hills of the Mugello, we come down again to the city of the plain, to Florence and its Baptistery – Dante’s ‘bel’ San Giovanni’, the ‘symbolic heart of the city’ and ‘source of the whole Christian life’.

As we walk from the bus station, not far from our hotel, a long wall of plain orange stone turns through 90 degrees and becomes another of these black-and-white façades, like Giotto’s bell-tower, from whose 80-metre height we’ve looked out over the mosaic of tiled roofs cradled by hills, or the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore under the great vermilion bell of its dome. This façade turns out to belong to the Church of Santa Maria Novella, home of another hell. Inside it’s dim and tall, like a forest of monumental, dying trees. On the left-hand wall the Jesus in Masaccio’s majestic Trinity is profoundly dead, with shadowed armpits under his spreadeagled arms, drab brown hair like seaweed drooping from a rock, mouth down turned, eyelids shut as though paralysed in inescapable sleep.

A little further on, in a large chapel called the Strozzi, we put coins in a slot and light up, rather weakly, a most extensive Inferno where dust-coloured (faded?) people creep and stagger, are mauled and mutilated in the crannies of a symbolic landscape made of layered rock. Flames like auburn hair seethe upwards from an underground labyrinth full of sepulchres. A centaur levels his arrow at a drowning man. A green devil with six bat’s wings and three gaping mouths clutches a pair of grimacing people. A horned figure labelled ‘Cerbero’, with cloven hooves, swollen balls and blood dripping from his lower jaw, forces two naked people to cower and topple. The lights go off. A Dutch woman puts in more coins and we have time to make out what looks like a feudal grandee with black vipers writhing round his head, presiding over a field of burning graves from the battlements of a castle.

Where, we are beginning to ask ourselves, are the happy or at least hard-working families? Where are the fishermen and reapers at work on blue seas or golden fields, the lovers adoring each other, the ecstatic dancers or the walkers in leafy woods and fruitful orchards?

At the Pitti Palace I find in the bookshop, among the prints of Leonardo’s Last Supper and the computer mouse-mats decorated with details from the Sistine Chapel, a well-researched and illustrated book called Devils in Art: Florence, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.* We have scarcely seen a tithe, as yet, of the nightmares that plagued the minds of Christians. At San Gimignano, in the Church of the Collegiata, a squinting greeny-blue devil crushes two naked people while blood spurts and somebody else is either sucked into or spewed out of the frog-mouthed vagina between his hairy thighs. A ‘lustful’ couple, naked, are being lashed with two cat-o’-nine-tails wielded by an aboriginal creature with ram’s horns and pointed ears. In the Vellati chapel of the Church of Santo Spirito, help is again at hand – Our Lady of Succour is taking a club to a dragon-winged devil covered with orange hair, with a scaly tail and dagger-like canines. He is reaching out a pronged tool to hook a frightened child. So the devil embodies all the wickedness lying in wait for the innocent of this world? Not really – the Virgin ‘snatches from the devil’s power a child conceived in sin during the forbidden period of Holy Week’. Such were the symbolic deterrents against unwanted pregnancy.

Thwarted by narrow opening hours from seeking a harbour of sanity in the Semplici Garden, we walk longingly past its arbours and copses and elegant flowerbeds, enjoying what we can through the tall iron railings. At least we’ll be able to get into the Museum of San Marco, housed in the monastery where Savonarola worked until he was burned for denouncing the rampant splendours of the 15th-century ruling class. My book records that Fra Angelico painted a splendid Last Judgment there, replete with swarthy devils and boiling cauldrons. In the cloisters the atmosphere is gentle, the sunny yellow ochre of walls, the terracotta of pantiles, the speckled breast of a thrush hunting across the lawns. In the gallery formed by the ground-floor rooms, we have to choose between the tedium of the virtuous – angels and virgins with upcast eyes, smooth cheeks, and operatic gestures of rapture and sub-missiveness – and the people with recognisable expressions being eaten alive, strangled by snakes, fed to toothed sea monsters or whipped as they simmer in cauldrons stoked by fiends.

The monks lived upstairs, in small rooms off the corridor that runs round the quadrangle. To keep them in a proper state of mind, and train them as guardians of ‘the source of the whole Christian life’, their rooms were decorated with powerful images, skilfully painted. Room after room displays the crucified man, naked under the tropical sun, limbs strained on the torture-tree, blood pouring from the nail-holes in his hands and feet and running in crimson rivulets across the desert sand.

The imagery is ubiquitous. More and more torments, in Padua and Pisa, in Bourges and Chauvigny and Vézelay. It lasted for centuries, this pandemic of nightmare and obsession. The huge and frowsty Hell by Nardo di Cione which we saw in the Strozzi Chapel was painted, Lorenzi insists, ‘when Florence was being convulsed by the Black Death’, so the devil ‘should be seen in relation to the terrible disease which was believed to be a solemn manifestation of the divine anger against the sins of the Florentines’. But Coppo di Marcovaldo’s ceiling in the Baptistery was made between 1250 and 1270, eighty years before the Black Death reached Florence, and Lorenzi himself shows that most of these Infernos were rooted in the bestiaries of the 11th and 12th centuries.

Even if 15th-century Florence was especially corrupt and vainglorious, as Savonarola believed when he organised his ‘bonfire of the vanities’ (i.e. books and pictures), then why is the same abhorrence of enjoyment and sexuality evident in the church art of so many other countries, in Spain and France and Britain, and in the Buddhist East where I once saw a wayside shrine in the hills east of Kandy which imaged the afterlife as a thorn-tree up which sinners climbed for so many thousand years (the rates per sin were displayed in a cave temple nearby) with blood gouting from their flesh? And if the scourge of the plague and the luxury of the Medicis were at the root of that disgust at ‘vanity’, how is it that a catechist called Blind Munro could incite poorly-off Scottish islanders to make bonfires of their harps and fiddles early last century? My own local paper in Aberdeen, just forty years ago, reported sermons preached by ministers in Buchan against the wickedness that had brought down the wrath of God in thunderstorms and devastated the oats and the barley.

The dazed and sickened impression I took away from all those murals and altar-pieces in Florence was that human beings have spent large tracts of history quite crazed with perplexity at their own natures. The rendered experience in the bulk of the paintings is a sort of dementia, a swarming, guzzling, copulating life racked by guilty fear. When the painters try to look beyond this, they can envisage little but feathery angels making music and a God presiding over it all who is more or less inconceivable, who lacks qualities, who is as expressionless as the ideal sky in which he resides. The angels and acolytes and virgins truckle to him, casting up pious eyes that have nothing to see because there are no branching trees up there, or bonny fruits or flying fish or rains that will cleanse and replenish.

T.S. Eliot remarked once that Puritan mythology was ‘thin’ and Milton’s heaven and hell were like ‘insufficiently furnished apartments filled with heavy conversation’. Did he really know of a mythological heaven in which the conversation was fascinating? In Florence it is heaven that is scant, as in the print of Death Indicating Hell and Heaven used as a frontispiece for a sermon preached by Savonarola at San Marco. The background is a frieze of the city. In the foreground a robed merchant stands in a posture of submission beside Death, a skeleton with a scythe. Below these two, a devil based on the Baptistery mosaic crushes a naked person in each of his terrible hands and bat-winged fiends fly about. Above, among cloudlets, sits God in a heaven so stylised and so insipid that it reminds me of nothing but more ikons, more stereotypes of a lifeless beatitude. Lifeless, because the real life of the seas and the fields, the houses and the mountains, has been miniaturised into a distant, often exquisite background glimpsed through an arch.

I am with Ma Cleghom, the old landlady in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Grey Granite, who was so disappointed by her sight of the afterlife:

And she pushed him [St Peter] aside and took a keek in, and there was God – with a plague in one hand and a war and a thunderbolt in the other and the Christ in glory with the angels bowing, and a scraping and banging of harps and drums, ministers thick as a swarm of blue-bottles, no sight of Jim [her husband] and no sight of Jesus, only the Christ, and she wasn’t impressed. And the said to St Peter This is no place for me and turned and went striding into the mists and across the fire-tipped clouds to her home.

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