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The Vision of Beatrice

The Vision of Beatrice from Dante’s ‘Purgatory’, stained glass panel, designed by N.H.J. Westlake, made by Lavers

The Vision of Beatrice from Dante’s ‘Purgatory’, stained glass panel, designed by N.H.J. Westlake, made by Lavers & Barraud, 1864. Museum no. 780-1864. Westlake designed this panel for an exhibition held in the V&A in 1864 whose aim was 'to encourage the art of glass painting as a fine art '. The composition becomes more dense and abstract as it moves from Purgatory, in which Dante kneels, through to the heavenly sphere in which Beatrice appears surrounded by angels.

Nathaniel Westlake, a leading designer of the Gothic Revival movement, designed this panel specifically for an exhibition of stained glass held at the South Kensington Museum in 1864. The South Kensington Museum was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899. Westlake designed large-scale windows for the firm of Lavers & Barraud, which made this window. The subject matter seems to have been entirely Westlake's choice.

The Vision of Beatrice is taken from The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet writing about 1300-20. In this work Dante relates a vision granted to him of the soul's journey after death through hell, purgatory and paradise. Dante is lead through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil, for whom he had great admiration.

In The Divine Comedy, Virgil represents 'Reason', who is always at Dante's side to guide him safely through the perils of life (and through the stages of the afterlife). Reason, however, can take you only so far, and Virgil has to leave Dante before he enters paradise. For this, one needs the grace of Divine Love, and this is how Dante portrays Beatrice.

Dante had known Beatrice, whose real name was Bici di Folco Portinari, in Florence when they were children. She was married to someone else when she came of age. Perhaps for political reasons a marriage to Dante would not have been acceptable. Dante's love for her was probably never a physical one, and when she died at a young age in 1290 he immortalised her in two works: the New Life (La vita nuova) and The Divine Comedy (La divina commedia).

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