Most religions have a concept or doctrine of Hell, a state or form of existence to which those who transgress during their life on earth pass when they die. Although Dante’s Inferno presents an unusually detailed vision of a very Christian Hell, the European tradition goes back to the ancient Greeks and before.
In this article, I look at some of the most explicit expressions of Hell in European painting, usually made to encourage the viewer to reform their life by showing them what they will experience after death if they continue in their sinful ways. Tomorrow I will look at paintings of Paradise – the carrot to go with the stick of Hell.
With preceding classical Greek and Roman, and Hebrew, traditions well-established, early modern paintings centred on the idea that Hell is a physical place, usually deep underground, in which usually naked humans undergo physical suffering at the hands (and instruments) of demons – torment and torture, expressed in very earthly terms.
This detail from Giotto’s fresco of The Last Judgment in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, was painted in 1306. It follows the early convention that its humanoid demons are colour-coded blue (and some in brown too), and its densely-packed naked victims are shown undergoing punishments which its viewers would be only too familiar with, such as hanging. This clearly wasn’t an attractive prospect.
In this panel from his Last Judgment triptych, from over a century later in 1467-1471, Hans Memling emphasises the searing flames of Hell. A lone angel at the top watches as the sinners drop onto a cascade of rocks, and demons torment them during their descent.
Luca Signorelli’s large fresco in the San Brizio Chapel in Orvieto shows the seething mass of The Damned (1499-1502). His colour-coding is richer, and there’s precious little sign of flames, fire, or even rocks, just a dense mass of people being tormented, as seen in the detail below.
It took the extraordinary imagination of Hieronymus Bosch to really terrify the viewer.
The right panel of Bosch’s Last Judgment from about 1500-05 shows naked figures being tormented and tortured in the foreground, receding to fumaroles of fire amid complete destruction in the background, which is set at night.
In the foreground the demons are more gaudy in form and colour. One shoots arrows which impale a naked figure as a target, other figures are run through by swords, and in a mass of flesh on top of a low tower, which has a round mediaeval marquee pitched on it. At the right edge is a large green statue with its head thrown back and gushing flames from its mouth.
Further into the distance there is a boat with no sails, and behind that are ruined buildings silhouetted by leaping flames, which turn into flaming fumaroles in the far distance. The air and sky is full of flames, smoke, and the ashes of utter destruction.
In The River to Hell, one of the four panels Bosch painted for his Visions of the Hereafter (1505-15), six naked humans are in torment in or near a river. In the foreground, a green winged demon is making a man who has got out of the river get back into it.
At the right a rat-like creature has inserted a long knife through the throat of a human. (It is anatomically possible to do that without killing the victim.)
Behind four other men are trying to swim in the river, one with their hands raised in distress, another seen only by their single raised arm. At the far side, on the right, two demons are in the river too.
Above the water there are red patches indicative of fire, the bare remains of a tree on which a single bird is perched, and a towering rock pinnacle. Part way up that another bird is perched and seen only in silhouette. There is also the ghostly figure of an owl. On top of the pinnacle there are more demons and fire, shooting sparks upwards. There are further bright lights behind the pinnacle, which help make its form clear.
Frans Francken the Younger’s Mankind’s Eternal Dilemma – The Choice Between Virtue and Vice from 1633 gave its viewers a more obvious choice, between Paradise above, and Hell underground.
Look carefully, though, and what he has painted isn’t Hell itself, but the perverted rituals of the Devil seated in front of the mouth of Hell. Beyond is just searing heat and flame, and the nightmarish thoughts of the viewer.
It was nearly two centuries before William Blake advanced the visual depiction of Hell, in his A Vision of the Last Judgement from 1808. This was painted as a commission for the Countess of Egremont, and is still at her former estate at Petworth, in Sussex, in the south of England. The left and right sides retain the upward and downward movement seen in earlier paintings of this theme, with angel trumpeters arrayed symmetrically in the middle of the painting. Below them is Hell, and above is Christ sitting on his throne, this time with an open scroll across his lap.
Many of Blake’s figures are individually identifiable, rather than being just a seething mass of humanity. The artist gave a textual summary of the painting to Ozias Humphrey, who had recommended the commission. This identifies Adam and Eve as kneeling in contrition before Christ on the Throne of Judgement, with Abraham and Moses below and to the edges.
Further to the right, Satan is wound round with a serpent and falling, and further to the right and upwards is Moses, with the tablets of the law at the right edge. Above Christ is the Tabernacle, its veil opened to reveal the cross with two cherubim bowing over it. In front of the curtains there is a seven-branched candlestick and a loaf of Shew bread (unleavened loaves placed each Sabbath in the Jewish Temple, not the bread of Christian communion).
Late in Blake’s career, another British artist John Martin was painting a succession of large works showing different apocalyptic visions. His Pandemonium from 1823-27 shows Hell not as the place for a tormented afterlife, but as the kingdom of Satan. He stands like a Roman legionnaire rallying his demon forces as they assemble on cinders floating on a river of lava.
My final vision of Hell comes from Ferran Cabrera i Cantó, in his painting of The Abyss from 1906. It returns to a seething mass of naked people losing contact with the crucifix at the top left, and sliding away into the yawning abyss of Hell at the lower right, where everything goes dark.
With the twentieth century and the hell on earth of trench warfare to come in less than a decade, conventional paintings of Hell had perhaps lost their impact.
So what of the promise of Paradise?