Hell - The Other Dimension
Visions of Hell
(for the) Tres Riches Heures, a Book of Hours, by the Limbourg Brothers c.1416
(Information for the text and illustrations are derived from John Ciardi's translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" and from Sandro Botticelli's drawings for the same)
"Abandon every hope, all ye who enter (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate') "- Inferno,Canto III,9
Dante's unique parable, plumbs the depths of visual and poetic imagination, of infernal suffering, human hope and knowledge, of past, present and future. The Inferno follows the simple Talmudic law of Hell; as the soul sinned, so it is punished - exactly. The landscape of Hell is the largest shared project in imaginative history; it's chief architects include Homer, Virgil, Dante, Bosch, Michelangelo, Goethe and more. Among Christians, it is no longer politically correct to send political enemies, atheists or adherents of other religions to Hell, and "sin" in this post-Freudian age, is more debatable than it ever was. That being said, Hell has been, quite literally, an incredibly fascinating place to visit!
Dante envisioned Hell as an inverted, underground cone terraced in descending ledges or circles of narrowing size down to the nethermost well or pit, which holds Cocytus, the frozen lake at the center of the earth. The uppermost vestibule debouches into the river Acheron, which is where Charon the boatman, ferries the two poets (Virgil and Dante), and all other dead souls into Hell. Between Acheron and the river Styx, are Hell's first five circles, all of which, besides the First, punish the incontinent, those who, in life, gave in to their passions.
The Second Circle, guarded by Minos, holds the lustful, whirled forever in winds of desire.
The Third Circle, guarded by Cerberus, traps gluttons in a cold, smelly garbage heap. The Fourth Circle, guarded by Plutus, pits misers and spendthrifts (many of them priests) against one another. The Styx, a filthy marsh, forms the Fifth Circle and also a moat to the city of Dis (or Satan), and also a boundary between Upper and Lower Hell. In the swamp, the angry tear at each other, while under the mud, the slothful and sullen gurgle incoherently. The poets, ferried by Phlegyas across the Styx, must enter Dis, the capital of Hell and home to the fallen rebel angels.
Immediately beyond is the Sixth Circle of heretics, who burn in fiery graves. Down a steep slope guarded by the Minotaur, the poets scramble towards the Seventh Circle and Phlegethon, the river of boiling blood guarded by the Centaurs, one of whom, Nessus, takes them across it.
The Seventh Circle, which punishes the sins of violence, is subdivided into three rounds, the first being the Phlegethon itself. Immersed here are the murderous, warmongers, predators and psychopaths. The next round, guarded by the Harpies, is the Wood of Suicides (Dante's eeriest conception). Then comes the burning plain of userers, blasphemers and homosexuals. The monster, Geryon, flies them to the next circle, the most elaborate of them all, containing the fraudulent and the malicious (figure to the left is a drawing by Gustave Dore').
Malebolge (Eighth Circle) is shaped like a great stone amphitheater with a series of stone bridges leading towards a central well over ten concentric ridges or "bolge". Each "bolgia" holds a group of sinners - the first, pimps and seducers are chivvied by horned demons in opposite directions; in the second, flatterers wallow in excrement (figure to the left shows bolge 1 and 2; that on the right depicts 5);the third contains corrupt ecclesiastics, including at least one pope, who are plunged upside down into something resembling a baptismal font, while their feet are "baptized" with flames. False prophets and soothsayers , with their heads twisted completely around, trudge through the fourth. At the fifth, reside the "Malebranche", a group of antic devils, who playfully toss grafters and public swindlers into boiling pitch (Dante's use of grotesque comedy); the sixth holds the hypocrites, who shuffle in single file, weeping from the weary weight of their lead-lined cloaks. In the seventh bolgia, thieves and reptiles (resembling snakes and dragons) merge and remerge; deceivers burn in flames in the eighth; in the ninth, are the sowers of discord, horribly mutilated by a demon with a sword. The tenth, and last bolgia contains the falsifiers who lie stricken with horrible diseases.
At the bottom of the Malebolge stand the Giants, guarding the pit. Three rings round the center of Cocytus - Caina holds those who betrayed their families; Antenora, traitors to their countries, and Ptolomea is for traitors to guests. In the absolute center is Judecca (named for Judas, of course), for traitors to their lords. In the very center, frozen fast and mindlessly weeping, is the greatest traitor, Dis (Satan) himself.
With Dante's Inferno, the history of Hell entered a new stage; he made it possible for us to think about Hell in allegorical terms. I will attempt to use a few of the several subjects introduced above to create a vision of "life in the hereafter" in a "classical" sense. The mosaic will be framed, the wooded stained and sealed prior to laying the tesserae. Each character will be presented individually in its context.
Here is the "cartoon" for the mosaic. A short note of the characters within - the central figure is that of Dis (Satan); to the left of the drawing, the tree-like structure and the figure below represent characters from the Wood of Suicides (the Seventh Circle); the snake/dragon-like creatures with an almost human appearance represent souls in the seventh bolgia of Malebolge (the Eighth Circle); the top right hand corner contains two characters - to the left, the dawning of realization to a soul of what he is really in for, and to the right, one of the Erinnys (Furies - the gates of hell between the Fifth and Sixth Circles); to the left of Satan's mouth is the form of a recent skeleton - evidenced by the fact that hair still clings to his bony head - a personification of death, and still enough to provide comic relief to the subject matter, or so I think anyway! Within the mouth resides one of the minor demons, literally in the mouth of Hell. As far as composition goes, two of the subjects portrayed are enveloped in "boxes", homage to the Byzantine style of dividing the damned into tidy compartments (see the 12th century mosaic of The Last Judgement from the Cathedral of Torcello in Venice); Western Hells are far more chaotic. As a footnote, I used a picture of myself for the face of Satan, using Adobe Photoshop to distort the face and create a "negative" image; added a lot of facial hair, jagged teeth, horns and wrinkles, and there was Satan :-) The only resemblance left are my lips!
Here goes...started working on the figures in the seventh bolgia of Malebolge: the humans who merge and re-emerge as snake/dragon-like creatures! In the Inferno, events here are depicted in several stages, the stranglehold of the serpents, an attack by dragons, the murderous bite causing a tormented Vanni Fucci (a citizen of Pistoia, condemned for theft and murder) to go up into flames, his resurrection, his attempted flight, and the recommencement of the torture - a ceaseless cycle of cruel pain. The thief and the serpent melt together, then separate again, each having assumed the form of the other. All other sinners here are subjected to the same fate, and the chain of tormenting metamorphoses continues indefinitely, a process entailing the violent theft of the sinners' outward identity, which points to the nature of their crime. The tesserae for the creatures are all smalti, including gold and cobalt metallic smalti, excepting the eyes which are peridots, and the tongues which are crackled glass.
Onto the figures from the Wood of Suicides (the Seventh Circle)....what you see here is only part of the drawing; the trunk of the tree will be worked on next.....here, the dense, thorny woods are inhabited by harpies, fabulous birds of prey with human faces, who feed on the gnarled vegetation. According to Pier delle Vigne (chancellor of Emperor Frederick II, imprisoned on charges of treason, who took his own life in 1248), all those who did violence to themselves are locked in the plants/trees, forever deprived of their own physical shape. Minos, the judge of Hell, carelessly sows their souls here like seeds, from which the thorny bushes grow. Virgil tells his ward (Dante) to break off a branch of one of the trees. It immediately starts bleeding.......
I decided to include a "Harpie" into the drawing, alighting on the "human" tree (the Seventh Circle). A fabulous hybrid of birds of prey and human faces, these creatures, dwell in the dense, thorny woods made up of those who committed suicide and are now locked forever in the plants. Being birds of prey, they feed on the "human" trees... the feet are not quite visible as they are done using black smalti; however they should show up when the "human" tree is completed.....tiles used include regular smalti, gold and metallic cobalt smalti.
Went on and completed the "human" tree (using smalti) - the overall effect is a bit colorful (one of my constant fears), but the background (Satan's face) should help tone down the composition eventually. This completes the figures from the Wood of Suicides.
One of the most startling manifestations of the unknown is the specter of death, which was why I decided to introduce this next figure into the composition. As an attempt to personify death, and possibly in the hopes of explaining it, artists in every period of history, have used the macabre image of an animated skeleton, risen from the grave....creating a skeletal "head" was a daunting task.... tentacle-like bones make up part of this ghoulish apparition....being a "recent" skeleton, hair still clings to his head, and the beads he wore in life adorn his neck. His eyes seem quite alive, and he almost seems like he is grinning.....however, the grin is no more than the fixed position of teeth in the fleshless jaw, and the dark pupils of the eyes are merely holes opening onto an intercranial void. Blood still drips from his mouth (cannibalistic ??), and spills over onto the adjoining compositions. Used tiger-eye beads, gold and regular smalti for this figure.
The three Furies, Alecto, Tisiphone and Megaera, tear at their heads of serpents, calling upon Medusa to ward off the earthly intruders : "Vegna Medusa, si'l farem di smolto" (Medusa, come, we'll turn him into stone). Portrayed here to the left is one of the Furies, Megaera. Used gold and the reverse of the gold smalti (the beautiful green) to depict the snakes as Megaera's hair and those twisting around her body. Two shades of purple smalti comprise the wings, while the entire body is completed in hues of grey. Irridescent blue smalti is used to highlight the lips, nipples and the navel.
Representative of one of the many minor demons that inhabit the various bolge, the figure to the left with flames as a backdrop is composed of black smalti, the surround being yellow (for the flames) and black smalti too. It is framed in "oro rosso" (red gold), once again as homage to Byzantine art.
To the right is the mouth of Hell...dark, cavernous and disturbing...it is intentionally left devoid of any artifice (compared to the initial drawing) - this perfectly encapsulates the words at the entrance of Hell - "Abandon every hope, all ye who enter"! The lips are teal while the gaping mouth is comprised of black smalti.
Here is a "work-in-progress" picture; completed the eyes next; one is done using black smalti and the other in "oro granulato" (bumpy gold); thus, one is reflective and the other absorbs light - they signify the duality in human nature....began working on the face of Satan next; am using various flesh tones from the beige-brown spectrum; these will also form the "background" for the rest of the mosaic. Grey smalti will also be used sparingly together with the brown palette. The final picture will be the completed mosaic. The mosaic is framed in an ornate 3" gold wooden border.