Horror in October: The Infernal Inferno
Happy October everyone! This, in my opinion, is the absolute best time of year. Football season is in full swing and the weather is cooling down. We have apples, leaves changing and the colors of autumn emerging, mulled cider, pumpkins, and the best holiday of the entire year, Halloween. That sinister time of year based on All Hallows’ Eve, when the souls of the departed were remembered, has become an occasion to celebrate fantasy and fright. Our frightful forms of entertainment come from the likes of Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Jason, and Michael Myers. In centuries past, frightful entertainments were painted in oil on canvases and panels. The history of art is abundant in images of horror, so what better time than October to examine them? This month, Greco’s Ghosts will celebrate spooktacular October with themes of terror.
Part One: The Infernal Inferno
Hell ought to be the most terrifying place in the world. The only argument against that claim might be that no one has ever seen it and therefore has nothing to base it on. Yet there is one man who lived in the Middle Ages, who told a tale of his own journey through Hell, or Inferno, and back. The man was Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1320), the tale was the Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy.
Click image to enlarge. Gustave Doré (French), Portrait of Dante Alighieri, 1860, engraving, Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London.
In this epic poem, Dante, the great father of the Italian language as many call him, travels through the three worlds of the afterlife, Inferno, or Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, or Heaven. Lead by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, Dante travels through Inferno first and maps out its horrific geography, which turns out to be divided into a number of circles, with cities and landscapes within each other, inhabited by demons and monsters whose sole purpose is to torture the sinners condemned to these whereabouts.
Click image to enlarge. Domenico di Michelino (Italian), La Divina Commedia di Dante (Dante and the Divine Comedy), 1465, fresco, dome of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence.
Before venturing through Dante’s circles of Hell, it is important to note that this was one of the very few accounts of Hell out there other than the Bible. Dante’s Divine Comedy was written sometime between about 1308 and 1320. For years and indeed centuries later, people would use Dante’s account of Hell when they wanted to picture the place. I actually haven’t read the Divine Comedy, but I am familiar enough with it and have read enough about it to know that it is highly expressive and describes its geography, inhabitants, and everything else, in intricate detail. Artists seized this example as an opportunity to make visual a place that a living soul could not know. Of course, the Divine Comedy is fiction, but perhaps some believed it not. Many probably used it as a beneficial tool in teaching faith and character. What is more, people are fascinated by fright. Why else do we watch scary movies? Why else do we slow down to look as we pass a car crash on the side of the road? Hell is the unknown, and the unknown allows room for creativity and invention, that which employs the artist. Thanks to Dante’s thoroughly descriptive tale, artists didn’t even have to invent much other than the various physical features of the Inferno’s demons. Thus, Dante’s Inferno became the tool used by many artists to convey the depths of Hell and the horrors within it. Here is what they look like:
Dante’s Map of the Inferno
Click image to enlarge. Bartolomeo Di Fruosino (Italian), Inferno from the Divine Comedy by Dante (Folio 1v), 1430-35, Manuscript (Ms. it. 74), 365 x 265 mm, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.
Circles of Hell descend deeper as numbers increase –
- Limbo – The residence of pagans and the unbaptized. They aren’t guilty sinners and therefore do not suffer, yet they did not accept Christ and therefore do not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Their home after death is pretty much a crappier version of Heaven. Sure, they have a castle and green pastures, but it ain’t Paradise. Such famous figures and minds dwell here as Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, Julius Caesar, and even Virgil, who accompanied Dante on his journey through the underworld.
Click image to enlarge. Sandro Botticelli (Italian), Map of Inferno, c.1480-95, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome.
- Lust – Those overcome by lust are the first to be truly punished in Hell and condemned here, where Dante meets the likes of Achilles, Paris, Helen of Troy, and Tristan, among others. The lustful are punished by being eternally pushed around by a violent storm of forceful winds, never to rest.
- Gluttony – Home of addicts and sinners of indulgence who are guarded by a great three-headed worm named Cerberus. The gluttonous are punished by inhabiting an extensive pile of filth, a lake of nastiness, a field of crap, if you will, which is further degraded by the constantly falling rain shower.
- Greed – Where the material girl and the material boy meet their fate. They are punished by being made to joust as well as push around colossal weights.
Click image to enlarge. William Bouguereau (French), Dante and Virgil in Hell, 1850, oil on canvas, 281 x 225 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
- Wrath – The river Styx flows through this circle, a swamp-like river where the angry damned fight each other on the surface and the brooding float withdrawn beneath the water, sulking and morose.
Click image to enlarge. Eugène Delacroix (French), The Barque of Dante, 1822, oil on canvas, 1.89 x 2.41m, Louvre, Paris.
The following circles from lower Hell are located within in the walls of the city called Dis:
- Heresy – Here dwell the heretics trapped in flaming tombs.
- Violence – In this circle, violent and malicious sins are punished. It is divided further into three rings:
- Outer ring – Violence against people and property, where the guilty are immersed in a river of blood, the level of which correspondes to the severity of their sins (Alexander the Great is here submerged up to his eyebrows).
- Middle ring – Violence against self, where suicides are turned into trees and nibbled on by harpies and spendthrifts are continuously chased and mauled by vicious dogs.
- Inner ring – Violence against God and nature, where the blasphemous and sodomites live in a desert of flaming sand upon which rains fire.
- Fraud – This circle is divided into ten bolgie, or stone ditches connected by bridges, in which various forms of falseness are punished. Pimps, seducers, sorcerers, false prophets, corrupt leaders, hypocrites, thieves, and the many other forms of the falsifier are tortured in various horrific ways.
Click image to enlarge. Sandro Botticelli (Italian), Map of Inferno detail, c.1480-95, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Rome.
- Treachery – Home of the traitors, this circle is further divided into four rounds in which, by order of the severity of the betrayal, the sinners are frozen in a lake of ice called Cocytus. Famous sinners such as Cain and Judas meet their fate in these rounds, with each round imprisoned in ice to progressively greater depths.
All the way into the depths of Hell, at the very bottom of the last circle, dwells Satan, the greatest sinner of all, eternally condemned for his treachery against God.
Click image to enlarge. Hieronymus Bosch (Flemish), Hell, 1500-04, oil on panel, 86.5 x 39.5 cm, Palazzo Ducale, Venice.