|Michelangelo: Doni Tondo|
In three previous posts on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo I have argued that in the foreground the Madonna elevates her child in the same manner as the priest elevates the Host at the Consecration of the Mass. Joseph, who represents the Church, participates in the Eucharistic sacrifice by genuflecting or kneeling at the moment when Renaissance Christians believed the Host was changed into the Body of Christ. The young John the Baptist is there, not so much as a symbol of Baptism, but as the one who announced the mission of Jesus years later on the banks of the Jordan, where he exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” In the background, I suggested that the five nude young men were the Nephilim or Giants whose sins were believed to have been the cause of the Flood at the time of Noah.
The biblical account only mentions these, but Christian and Jewish legends both claimed that the Nephilim were the offspring of angels and wicked women descended from Cain. Indeed, the Jewish legends seemed to contain more detail than the Christian and I speculated that, given the interest in Hebrew language and lore in Renaissance Florence, Michelangelo might have been aware of the Jewish legends.
Since that post I have found some very relevant information in David Whitford’s study, The Curse of Ham in the Early Modern Era, published by Ashgate in 2009. In his analysis of the impact of the story of the drunkenness of Noah, and Noah’s subsequent curse of his son Ham, Whitford devoted a chapter to the Giants or Nephilim whose sins were thought to have been the cause of the Flood.
In particular, Whitford discussed the Commentaria of Annius of Viterbo, a Dominican friar. Here is the Wikipedia notice on Annius.
He is best known for his Antiquitatum Variarum, originally titled the Commentaria super opera diversorum auctorum de antiquitatibus loquentium (Commentaries on the Works of Various Authors Discussing Antiquity) and often known as the Antiquities of Annius. In this work, he published alleged writings and fragments of several pre-Christian Greek and Latin profane authors, destined to throw an entirely new light on ancient history.
Alleged is a nice way of saying that the Antiquitatum Variarum or Commentaria was an outright forgery. Nevertheless, even though contemporary humanists suspected a forgery, the Commentaria, originally published in 1498, became very popular in its time. Annius claimed linguistic knowledge that he did not possess, and even planned a fake archaeological discovery. The book was reprinted in 1515 with only minor corrections.
Here is Whitford’s account of Annius on the Nephilim.
Book One begins by stating that before the “famous catastrophe of the waters, by which the entire world perished, many ages passed.” In these ages, giants ruled the world from their great city, Enos. The giants were corrupt and prone to tyranny, lechery, and debauchery. They devoted themselves to sexual immorality such that, “they had intercourse with their mothers, their daughters, their sisters, with other men and with wild beasts.” They also despised religion and the gods. Despite warnings and prophecies that the world would be destroyed because of this wickedness, the giants continued their impiety. Only one giant, who was more “reverential to the gods and wiser than the rest,” paid any attention to the prophecies; because of this he survived. His name was Noa “and he had three sons, Samus, Japetus, and Chem.” Noa (or Noah) survived because he could read the stars and foresaw the deluge to come. Thus, beginning 78 years before the Flood, he built an ark. When the floods came, the whole human race was drowned, except for Noa and his family. From this family sprang all the peoples of the earth. (50-51)
Despite the spurious nature of the Commentaria, it would appear that the story of the Nephilim was in the air even before its publication in 1498, and that the Commentaria of Annius only added to its popularity.
|Signorelli: Medici Madonna|
Scholars have often seen a resemblance between the nudes in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, and those in Luca Signorelli’s Medici Madonna. In both paintings the postures of the young men remind me of lazy idlers or street-corner troublemakers. Moreover, in the Signorelli painting the four scantily clad young men seem quite oversized and they tower over the horse that seems to occupy the same plane. Maybe I fail to understand the use of perspective but the men do appear to be gigantic. ###