Visions of Hell - Dante's Inferno

(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.

<< Charon ferrying the poets across the river Styx.

The First Circle, Limbo, is the residence of the unbaptized. 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.

The walls of the city - really a citadel - are guarded by the Furies (or Erinnys) and Medusa.

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.

<< Heretics

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 upper left shows bolge 1 and 2; that on the lower left 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.

<< This 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. 


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