It is just before dawn on Good Friday in 1300, and Dante is in mid-life. He is wandering, lost in a dark wood.
When he reaches the foot of a hill, he sees its upper slopes already lit by the first rays of the sun. As he starts to walk up, his way is blocked first by a leopard, then by a lion, and finally by a wolf.
Forced to retreat back into the gloom of the wood, he comes across a man. Dante asks the figure, whether a real man or just a spectre, to save him from the beasts.
The figure introduces himself by way of a riddle, leading Dante to recognise him as the classical Roman poet Virgil (famously author of the Aeneid), thus a ghost. Dante asks him to help by showing him a way out of the wood and away from the three wild beasts. Virgil tells him that the animals block all ways apart from the one which they are bound to take. He offers to lead Dante safely on, but warns him that they will pass through the eternity of Hell. Dante agrees.
The day passes, with the ghost of Virgil leading Dante towards the entrance to Hell. As the light begins to fade, Dante starts to have second thoughts. Virgil explains that he has been sent by the spirit of Dante’s love, Beatrice, who in turn was encouraged by the Virgin Mary, Saint Lucia, and Rachel. (They symbolise compassion, grace, and contemplation.)
William Blake’s Dante Running from the Three Beasts is an unusual composite of Dante’s opening scenes, which shows the three wild beasts threatening Dante, who is running away into the arms of the ghost of Beatrice.
The thought of these ladies watching over him renews Dante’s confidence, and Virgil leads him on the deep and wooded road leading to the gates of Hell.
William Blake (1757–1827) was a British visionary painter and illustrator whose last and incomplete work was an illustrated edition of the Divine Comedy for the painter John Linnell. Most of his works shown in this series were created for that, although he did draw and paint scenes during his earlier career. I have a major series on his work here.
Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) was an Austrian painter known for his Neoclassical and Romantic landscape works, who between about 1824-29 painted large frescoes of the Divine Comedy in the Villa Massimi (Casa Massimo) in Rome.
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875) was French, and one of the most prolific and greatest European landscape artists of the nineteenth century, who was key to the development of Impressionism. Following in the classical tradition, he also painted several narrative works set in those landscapes. This article looks briefly at his work and career.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883) was the leading French illustrator of the nineteenth century, whose paintings are still relatively unknown. Early in his career, he produced a complete set of seventy illustrations for translations of the Inferno, which were first published in 1857 and continue to be used. These were followed in 1867 by more illustrations for Purgatorio and Paradiso. This article looks at his paintings.
Edgar Degas (1834–1917) is known as a member of the French Impressionists, but was actually not an Impressionist in the conventional sense, but a highly innovative realist. Early in his career he painted several narrative works, including one showing Dante and Virgil. Edgar Degas: an appreciation introduces his life and work.
Robin Kirkpatrick (trans) (2012) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso, Penguin Classics. ISBN 978 0 141 19749 4.
Richard Lansing (ed) (2000) The Dante Encyclopedia, Routledge. ISBN 978 0 415 87611 7.
Guy P Raffa (2009) The Complete Danteworlds, A Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, Chicago UP. ISBN 978 0 2267 0270 4.
Prue Shaw (2014) Reading Dante, From Here to Eternity, Liveright. ISBN 978 1 63149 006 4.