Picture the scene. A very much alive Dante finds himself cast into The Dark Wood whereupon he begins his terrifying descent into Hell, the sadistic, nefarious inferno; a violent, barbaric and desperate place where no living soul has ever travelled, doomed to witness the sickening and torturous punishment of sin.
Dante presents Hell as a shocking and disturbing apocalyptic empire; an inhumane prison of misery and woe wherein echo the chilling screams of eternal suffering as sinners are brutally and viciously castigated and admonished. It’s an evil realm of the phantasmagorical hosting demons and dragons, behemoths and giants, serpents and she-wolves. Residing for eternity in this infernal city of despair are corrupt, deviant malefactors all guarded and tormented by sadistic ferrymen, soul snatchers, goddesses of vengeance and the cursed crew of the Damned. Make no mistake, Dante’s Inferno is an adult adventure down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole and, for Renaissance artists, a fabulous - and inspiring - new reference point.
No wonder. He observes barbaric and violent torture including flagellation by fire where the dead burn alive, scalding in rivers of boiling blood, roasting and melting in blazing tombs, drowning in bubbling pits of tar. He meets sinners, limbless and faceless as demons wielding razor sharp rapiers, hack and carve away at their wretched souls while gluttonous oafs frantically flail in lakes of excrement as venomous yellow-jackets sting at their already pitiful forms. Then there’s the human Forest of Suicides, plus the pit of soothsayers, forever disfigured as their heads are re-placed, facing backwards, no longer able to see into the future. And don’t get me started on his terrifying encounter with the beast that is Satan; Emperor of the Universe of Pain.
So graphically did Dante portray this realm of the afterlife that it whipped Renaissance artists into a frenzy, influencing and transforming their creative depictions of Hell from barren landscapes (yawn) to shocking, horrific, explicit and occasionally tender pieces, dramatically portraying the punishment of sin and torturous suffering of humankind. Inferno is, very deliberately, a blunt and graphic representation of eternal death in the Underworld and all the suffering, misery, pain, cruelty and violence that goes with it. No happy accidents here. It needed to be blatant and unashamed as its purpose was to serve as a stark warning to mankind; you must renounce sin. Because, folks, said Dante, the evil, torturous and nefarious inferno is where you’ll end up on Judgement Day if you don’t.
And, just as Inferno is a graphic, intense and shocking representation of the violence, tortures and horrors of Hell - stirring all five senses - so are its artistic portrayals, so vividly captured and depicted by a throng of masterful artists. Out were images of tumbleweed rolling away into the distance, in were mythical characters, mystical beasts, vivid scenery, raging typhoons, furious fires and sadistic torture. Boy, he really gave them something to work with - think man, woman and nature on steroids! You didn’t realise? Let’s take a look…
Standing at more than 6m high and containing nearly 200 figures, the mammoth Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin depicts the entrance to the Underworld where Dante’s unavoidable journey truly begins.
The Gates of Hell, Museo Soumaya, Mexico City
The Kiss by Auguste Rodin portrays a breathless Paolo and Francesca of the 2nd Circle of Hell, forever immortalised in marble, lovers entwined, locked in embrace, naked sweethearts sharing their first kiss.
Forming part of the extensive Vatican Collection, Sandro Botticelli’s interactive Map of Hell accurately depicts all punishments and encounters in the inferno, topography clearly portrayed as nine concentric, ever decreasing circles.
Gustave Doré’s depiction of the mythical beast Geryon, behemoth of fraud, found at the 7th circle of Hell, represents everything that is sinister, terrifying and monstrous.
Giovanni Stradanus paints Dante & Virgil, steered to the City of Dis by the angry, violent ferryman, Phlegyas, unconcerned should he strike one of the wretched Sullen submerged within the River Styx.