Dante has been rescued from three wild beasts by the ghost of Virgil, who leads him along the only route away, taking the pair to the gate of Hell.
There inscribed above the gate is a forbidding series of lines which leave the traveller in no doubt as to where they are going: to everlasting pain and tortured souls. This culminates in the most famous line of the whole of the Divine Comedy:
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate
traditionally translated as Abandon hope all ye who enter here, but perhaps more faithfully as Leave behind all hope, you who enter.
Virgil explains its meaning to Dante before the two enter. Dante is then struck by the terrible sounds that he hears, of the tormented sinners in Hell mixed with the sound of the first group of dead: those who have been refused entry to Hell or to Heaven, because of their cowardice in failing to choose between God and the Devil. They form a river of naked bodies drawn by a banner, their faces constantly being stung by wasps and hornets, so that they are streaked with blood and tears.
Among them is one who has been identified as Pope Celestine V, who refused to take office in July 1294; another possibility is Pontius Pilate, who refused to pass judgement on Christ.
Then Charon, an irascible old man with white hair and coal-black eyes, appears in his boat. He tells Dante to get away from the dead, as he won’t be carried across by him with those souls, but have to arrange another crossing. Virgil intecedes to ensure that they too will be ferried by Charon across the marshy River Acheron to Hell itself.
Those souls destined for Hell rush to board the boat, with Charon sweeping them in using his oar to hit those who are slow. The boat then carries them across, as another load gathers on the shore ready for Charon’s return.
There is then a violent gust of wind and a red bolt of lightning, and Dante becomes unconscious.
Although Dante’s verse doesn’t describe his crossing of the Acheron in Charon’s boat, this has been imagined by several painters.
In 1822, the young Eugène Delacroix painted one of his finest narrative works, The Barque of Dante, showing the pair crossing a stormy river Acheron in a very small boat.
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937) was a Spanish painter who was born in Valencia but spent much of his working life in Rome, where he became the director of the Spanish Academy there. After painting small genre works, he turned to classical narratives including the marvellous painting shown here.
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.
Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) was a major French painter whose Romantic and painterly style laid the groundwork for the Impressionists. In addition to many fine easel works, he painted murals and was an accomplished lithographer too. Many of his paintings are narrative, and among the most famous is Liberty Leading the People from 1830. This article looks at some of his narrative works.
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.
Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko (1835-1890) was born in the Ukraine, but spent most of his career painting historical events in Russia. His painting of Charon shown above won him a gold medal.
Paolo Vetri (1855–1937) was a precocious Italian painter who was born in Sicily. He was a pupil of the great narrative artist Domenico Morelli, and completed several major murals as well as many easel paintings.
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.