The Divine Comedy: Inferno 3 In Limbo, and the Harrowing of Hell

William Blake (1757–1827), Homer and the Ancient Poets in the First Circle of Hell (Limbo) (Dante's Inferno) (1824-27), pen and ink and watercolour over pencil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante lost consciousness just before he was expecting to be ferried in Charon’s boat across the River Acheron, from Hell’s Gate to its First Circle.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Map of Hell (1480-90), silverpoint, ink and distemper, 33 x 47.5 cm, Biblioteca Apostólica Vaticana, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli’s Map of Hell from 1480-90 shows these stages at the very top: highest are the woods through which Dante was wandering when he encountered the three wild beasts. At the left, Virgil led Dante down to the area in which the cowards are trapped, neither being allowed admittance to Heaven, nor to Hell. Charon’s boat them crosses the River Acheron, shown in blue, taking Dante and his guide Virgil to the First Circle of Limbo.

Dante is woken by thunder, and realises that he is on the edge of the abyss that is Hell. Virgil leads him down into darkness, where there is no grief or pain, and explains that the multitude there never sinned at all, but none was baptised in faith as they had lived before the Christian era. This is where Virgil’s ghost now inhabits, for despite his merit and attainments, he never revered the Christian God.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), The Virtuous Pagans (1857), engraving, dimensions not known, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Dante asks whether any of those in Limbo, as this circle is known, have ever been blessed and been able to leave. This allows Virgil to explain the Harrowing of Hell by Christ after his crucifixion. This occurred not long after Virgil’s death: following his crucifixion, Jesus Christ descended into Hell, where he reached the First Circle, blessed and liberated from it the many Old Testament figures who had been faithful to the God of the Jews – also known as Anastasis.

The descent of Christ into Limbo and his Harrowing of Hell was a popular theme in religious painting until the end of the Renaissance, and would have been familiar to Dante’s readers. Here is a small selection of some of the finest paintings of this, from 1530 to 1600.

Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1486–1551), The Descent of Christ into Limbo (1530-35), media not known, 398 x 253 cm, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena, Siena, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594), The Descent into Limbo (E&I 144) (1568), oil on canvas, 342 x 373 cm, San Cassiano, Venice, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.
Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Hans Rottenhammer (1564–1625), Christ’s Descent into Limbo (1597), oil on copper, 26.5 x 35.5 cm, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.
Pablo de Céspedes (1538–1608), Christ’s Descent into Limbo (c 1600), oil on panel, dimensions not known, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil then introduces the great classical writers: Homer, Horace the satirist, Ovid and Lucan. Together with Virgil, these five invite Dante himself to join them as the sixth among the ranks of great writers (an ambitious piece of self-promotion).

William Blake (1757–1827), Homer and the Ancient Poets in the First Circle of Hell (Limbo) (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27), pen and ink and watercolour over pencil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.
Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Homer, the Classic Poets (c 1857), engraving, dimensions not known, location not known. Image by Karl Hahn, via Wikimedia Commons.

The group walk on to the Dome of Light, and further to a castle surrounded by seven curtain walls and a moat. Entering this, they see many ancient heros, including Electra, Hector, Aeneas, and other figures from classical history and legend. Next Dante sees a group of philosophers, including Socrates, Plato and others. Finally, he sees other learned figures from the past, including Euclid, Ptolemy and Hippocrates.

Here Dante and Virgil bid farewell to the spirits of the great writers as they move onward to the next circle.

The artists

Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1486–1551) was one of the last of the Sienese School of Painting, which contrasted with the better-known Renaissance painting of Florence. He has been aptly summarised as “a mediaeval believer of miracles awaking in Renaissance reality.”

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.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510) was one of the leading painters of the early Southern Renaissance, working in his native city of Florence. In addition to his huge egg tempera masterpieces of i (c 1482) and The Birth of Venus (c 1485), he was a lifelong fan of Dante’s writings. He produced drawings which were engraved for the first printed edition of the Divine Comedy in 1481, but these weren’t successful, most copies only having two or three of the 19 which were engraved. He later began a manuscript illustrated edition on parchment, but few pages were ever fully illuminated.

Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) was the son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who specialised in floral still lifes. The painting shown above was made in collaboration with the figure painter Hans Rottenhammer, a relationship which lasted between 1595-1610. At the time of this painting, Brueghel had returned to Antwerp, and Rottenhammer was in Venice. Brueghel’s best-known collaborative paintings were made with Peter Paul Rubens.

Pablo de Céspedes (1538–1608) was a Spanish polymath from Córdoba, who was an accomplished painter, poet and architect who worked for twenty years in Italy, largely because he fell foul of the Inquisition of Valladolid in Spain. He was also a linguist and theologian.

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.

Hans Rottenhammer (1564–1625) was a German figure painter who worked in Italy from 1593-1606. Later during that period, when he was in Venice, he collaborated with Jan Brueghel the Elder on the work shown above. He was probably responsible for the early training of Adam Elsheimer, and for introducing him to the technique of painting on a small scale using oil on copper plate.

Jacopo Tintoretto (c 1518-1594) was one of the three grand masters working in Venice in the middle and late sixteenth century, alongside the more senior figure of Titian, and Paolo Veronese. Primarily a religious painter, I have looked in detail at his major works and biography. His painting shown above was made to accompany his Crucifixion for the church of San Cassiano in Venice.



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.