The Divine Comedy: Inferno 16 An overview of Hell

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Thieves (1825-28), fresco, dimensions not known, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Before Dante takes us on from Hell to Purgatory, I’d like to take a brief overview of the last fifteen articles in which he has taken us to Hell and back, looking at some of its finest paintings.

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.

It was Botticelli who provided the clearest pictorial map of Dante’s journey, as he descended through a succession of circles, each with its own class of sinner. 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.

This journey starts just before dawn on Good Friday in 1300, when the poet is wandering, lost in a dark wood. His way is blocked first by a leopard, then by a lion, and finally by a wolf.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796–1875), Dante and Virgil (1859), oil on canvas, 260.4 x 170.5 cm, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Forced to retreat back into the wood, Dante comes across a man who introduces himself by way of a riddle, leading Dante to recognise him as the ghost of the classical Roman poet Virgil. He tells Dante that the only way out is to pass through the eternity of Hell. When the pair reach the gate of Hell, they read its warnings, which culminate in the bleak exhortation: leave behind all hope, you who enter.

They first encounter those stuck forever on the periphery, those whose lives were too cowardly to enter Heaven or Hell, who are stung repeatedly by flies and wasps.

Alexander Dmitrievich Litovchenko (1835-1890), Charon Carrying Souls Across the River Styx (1861), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

They then cross the River Acheron in Charon’s ferryboat, and enter the First Circle of Limbo, a place of tranquil and calm. Here are the souls of those who led honourable lives before the Christian era, and others who never had the opportunity to follow Christ. These include 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).

Virgil leads Dante down to the Second Circle, for those guilty of the sin of lust.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (The Whirlwind of Lovers) (c 1824), pen and watercolour over pencil, 36.8 x 52.2 cm, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham, England. The Athenaeum.

Here the lustful are thrown around by vicious winds, and Dante hears the tragic story of Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, which inspired many fine paintings.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883) Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1863), oil on canvas, 280.7 x 194.3 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Passing the three-headed dog-monster Cerberus, Virgil takes Dante on to the Third Circle, full of gluttons wallowing in stinking mud, under a constant deluge of rain, sleet and snow. In the Fourth Circle, they see a mixture of the avaricious and prodigals pushing great boulders in opposite directions.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Stygian Lake, with the Ireful Sinners Fighting (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27) pen, ink and watercolour over pencil, dimensions not known, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

The Fifth Circle holds the swamp of the River Styx, in which sullen spirits are submerged, and the wrathful fight one another. Dante and Virgil cross this in a boat piloted by Phlegyas, who deposits them at the gate to the city of Dis, entrance to the lower parts of Hell. The gate is slammed shut on them, and requires a messenger from Heaven to let them through.

William Blake (1757–1827), Farinata degli Uberti (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27) media and dimensions not known, The British Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Here, Dante encounters the Sixth Circle, for heretics who denied the soul’s immortality, among them the Florentine Farinata degli Uberti, who is imprisoned in a tomb. With Virgil the guide, the pair are carried by Nessus the Centaur on to the Seventh Circle, for the violent.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Wood of the Self-Murderers: The Harpies and the Suicides (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27), graphite, ink and watercolour on paper, dimensions not known, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. Wikimedia Commons.

These not only include tyrannical warriors like Attila the Hun, murderers and bandits, but those whose violence was directed at their own lives in suicide, who are trees in a wood which is kept in perpetual pain by harpies feeding on them. The pair then cross a desert on which fire rains to torment the souls of blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Symbolic Figure of the Course of Human History Described by Virgil (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Here Dante learns of a statue of an old man on Mount Ida, on the island of Crete, whose tears form the rivers of Hell.

Virgil guides Dante onto the back of Geryon, who had been a king slain by Hercules, condemned to suffer in Hell for his fraud, who flies the pair on to the Eighth Circle, for the fraudulent. This is divided into a series of ‘rottenpockets’, depressions in which different types of fraudster are confined. They pass through the areas for pimps, flatterers, corrupt religious leaders, sorcerors, corrupt officials, and hypocrites.

William Blake (1757–1827), The Simonist Pope (Dante’s Inferno) (1824-27), watercolour, 52.5 x 36.8 cm, The Tate Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Among the corrupt religious leaders, or ‘simonists’, is Pope Nicholas III, who had been shamelessly nepotistic.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Thieves (1825-28), fresco, dimensions not known, Casa Massimo, Rome, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The later rottenpockets contain thieves, those who gave fraudulent counsel, those who sowed discord, and falsifiers and imposters of various kinds. Thieves are attacked repeatedly by snakes to undergo their own reptilian transformation.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905), Dante and Virgil In Hell (1850), oil on canvas, 280.5 x 225.3 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Among these many cheats and frauds are those who fight one another, and sink their teeth into flesh.

Dante and Virgil are lowered into the Ninth Circle by Antaeus, one of the giants who stand guard around its periphery.

Gustave Doré (1832–1883), Dante and Virgil in the ninth circle of hell (1861), oil on canvas, 311 x 428 cm, Musée de Brou, Bourg-en-Bresse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

There is the lake of Cocytus, in which those guilty of treachery are frozen and suffering for eternity. These include souls of those who were treacherous against their relatives, against their homeland, against guests, and against their benefactors.

Blake, William, 1757-1827; Ugolino and His Sons in Prison
William Blake (1757–1827), Count Ugolino and His Sons in Prison (c 1826), pen, tempera and gold on panel, 32.7 x 43 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England. The Athenaeum.

Among them is Count Ugolino, who sinks his teeth into the neck of Archbishop Ruggieri, who left him to starve to death in a cell.

Finally, Dante and Virgil see Lucifer himself, before leaving Hell.

Joseph Anton Koch (1768-1839), Hell (study for Casa Massimo frescoes) (c 1825), watercolour and gouche, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The next article in this series joins Dante as he journeys through Purgatory, and shows paintings and illustrations of that second book of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The artists

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.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) was a precocious and highly-acclaimed academic painter who dominated the Salon in the late nineteenth century with his figurative works, often drawn from mythology. Classically-trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, he grew infamous for his nudes painted against false settings, and his vehement opposition to Impressionism. However, he taught at the Académie Julian, and worked tirelessly even when his paintings fell from favour.

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.

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. He also appears to have drawn a set of illustrations for Dante’s Inferno in about 1808.

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.



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.