Dante and Virgil are ferried across the River Styx to land at the gate to the city of Dis, the lower depths of Hell (circles six to nine), but the gate is slammed shut on Virgil when he goes forward to secure their admission. Virgil reassures Dante that he has been here once before, but Dante’s eyes are fixed at the top of the gate, where the three Furies appear, wreathed in snakes.
Virgil names them to Dante: Megaera on the left, Alecto to the right, and Tisiphone between. Megaera represents evil deeds, Tisiphone evil words, and Alecto evil thought. Drawn from rich classical mythology, they are another crossover into Dante’s Christian Hell.
The Furies call on Medusa to turn Dante to stone, with the sight of her face, and Virgil makes Dante turn to look away from them, and close his eyes tightly.
A strong wind then blows across the marsh of the Styx towards them, as a mass of ghosts there part to make way for an angel who walks across the water towards the walls of Dis. Virgil gets Dante to bow in deference to the angel as he passes them by and opens the gate of Dis for them with his rod. The angel chides those inside Dis for their resistance and immediately returns the way that he came.
Virgil then leads Dante through the open gate onto a plain, its ground made uneven by many tombs set within its surface. The stones on top of those tombs are open, revealing flames within, and letting out cries of pain. Virgil explains that these contain heretics and their followers, and that their lids will be closed with the Final Judgement. By heresy, Dante here means that these sinners denied the immortality of the soul.
Virgil points out the tomb of the Epicureans, then Dante is startled by the appearance of the upper body and head of Farinata degli Uberto in another.
Farinata was the leader of the Ghibellines of Florence, a family grouping which had been fighting against the Guelphs, including Dante himself. The Florentine then asks Dante who his ancestors were, and reveals that he and Dante’s family had opposed one another. With Farinata are the last Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Cardinal Octavian – Ottaviano degli Ubaldini, who had been a powerful supporter of the Ghibellines prior to his death in 1273.
With Dante thinking on what he had heard, Virgil leads him on into a gorge, in which they descend further into the depths 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.
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.
John Flaxman (1755–1826) was a British sculptor and draughtsman who occasionally painted too. When he was in Rome between 1787-91, he produced drawings for book illustrations, including a set of 111 for an edition of The Divine Comedy. In 1810, he was appointed the Professor of Sculpture to the Royal Academy in London, and in 1817 made drawings to illustrate Hesiod, which were engraved by William Blake.
Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839) was an Austrian landscape painter, who worked mainly in Neoclassical style. During his second stay in Rome, he was commissioned to paint frescos in the Villa Massimi on the walls of the Dante Room there, which remain one of the most florid visual accounts of Dante’s Inferno. He completed those between 1824-29.
Bernardino Poccetti (1548-1612) was an Italian Mannerist painter and print-maker who was born in Florence and painted some magnificent frescoes in the palaces of the richest families there.
John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) was an American painter who worked much of his career in Europe. Trained in Paris, he was a highly successful portraitist in Paris then London. One of the most gifted and prolific painters of the nineteenth century, his work is rich in bravura brushstrokes and highly individualistic. In his later career, he painted large murals on the East Coast of America, including Orestes Pursued by the Furies in Boston, MA, which he started in 1922, and completed in 1925, just prior to his death. Over its 100 square feet of canvas, it shows a young and naked Orestes cowering under the attacks of the Furies, as he tries to run from them.
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.