Above: Tondal views The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort
Freezing fog the last few days, which makes driving to work in the mornings very slow. One of the compensations of being late this morning was that I was able to listen to some of Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 (it starts at 9 o’clock when I would normally be at my desk). It is one of the most erudite and intelligent programmes on broadcast media.
This morning the panel of experts looked at the idea of Hell in European culture, from the earliest Egyptian influences to the Greek shadowlands and into the medieval Christian imagination (at that point I arrived at the office and had to switch off). They talked of Dante’s Inferno (from the Divine Comedy) and how Dante was guided by the poet Virgil through the different levels of Hell. This reminded me of when I worked at the J.Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (I was a sort of intern in their Public Affairs office). One of the treasures of the Museum is an illuminated medieval manuscript called the Dream of Tondal.
In this 1470 French manuscript (based on a much older tradition that predates Dante) the young off-the-rails knight Tondal is guided through Hell by an angel, as a warning of what will happen to him if he doesn’t give up his selfish licentious lifestyle. The twenty illuminated images fascinated me and I used to look at them every day (because I was working there I had access to the curatorial departments and could see things close up, even handle them – wearing special gloves).
One image in particular so impressed me that I had a print made of the Museum slide (and have now scanned it in to post on this site – so this image is several generations removed from the vibrant original – copyright held by the J. Paul Getty Trust). It shows the naked knight Tondal being shown The Wall Of Heaven Where The Bad (But Not Very Bad) Are In Temporary Discomfort. Looking back I think I liked it because of its Monty-Python-And-The-Holy-Grail absurdity.
I have a recurring dream (about once a year) that I am in one of those niches on the outside wall of Heaven, detained as one of the Bad (But Not Very Bad). In the dream I am quite comfortable but have to be careful not to move since there is a terrifying drop below me. I suppose there could be worse fates.